Friday, December 21, 2007

Surprise Steelers stars step up when needed

By John Harris
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, December 21, 2007



Steelers running back Najah Davenport fights off the Rams' Jonathan Wade in the first quarter at Edward Jones Dome, Dec. 20, 2007.
Chaz Palla/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


ST. LOUIS -- The Steelers did what they were supposed to do Thursday night. How they did it and who did it raised eyebrows.

Fast Willie Parker suffered a broken right leg on his first carry of the game and Big Najeh Davenport replaced him. For good, it turned out.

Davenport became the Steelers new feature running back in a 41-24 offensive explosion against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome that sounded more like Heinz Field due to thousands of Steelers fans in attendance.

Chalk one up for the offense. Ben Roethlisberger was 10 of 12 for 204 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. We've seen that before. What we hadn't seen too much of this season was Nate Washington making big plays. Washington caught two touchdown passes. Santonio Holmes caught three balls for 116 yards before halftime, including an 83-yard bomb on the Steelers' first play.

That was before Parker suffered a broken fibula when he was spilled by linebacker Will Witherspoon for a 1-yard loss, ending the season much too soon for the NFL's leading rusher.

Say hello to the Steelers' new feature back.

Enter Davenport, who had never rushed for 100 yards in a game in six seasons. Until last night, that is, when the Steelers really needed him.



Steelers receiver Hines Ward makes a first-quarter catch in front of the Rams' Corey Chavous and Brandon Chillar at Edward Jones Dome, Dec. 20, 2007.
Chaz Palla/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


Davenport ran over, around and through a St. Louis defense that hadn't yielded 100 yards to a running back all season. Davenport topped the 100-yard mark on only his 17th carry, and that was in the third quarter.

The Steelers are going to have to start treating Davenport differently now that he's their feature back. Davenport was shaken up while playing on the punt team in the fourth quarter. Starting running backs don't normally play on punt teams, not when they're replacing the league's top rusher and the depth at that position is now manned by rookies with a Verron Haynes perhaps to be named later.

It was a good thing for the Steelers offense that Davenport returned to carry the football during a later drive that produced a Jeff Reed field goal and essentially put the game out of reach, Ike Taylor's interception return for a touchdown notwithstanding.

Davenport did last night what coach Mike Tomlin always said he could do, given the opportunity and enough carries.



Steelers quarterback safety Troy Polamalu goes airborne to bring down Rams receiver Torry Holt with DeShea Townsend during the second quarter Thursday night at Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
Christopher Horner/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


Backing up Parker rarely afforded Davenport the opportunity, or the carries.

Last night he carried the ball 24 times for 123 yards and a touchdown. He also caught two passes for 44 yards and a score.

Davenport was more than an adequate replacement against the Rams. He was a revelation.

Now he's going to have to line up next week against Baltimore and do it all over again.

That's what he's paid to do. Shoot, that's what feature backs do. Especially those who have to lead their team into the playoffs.

Davenport has waited a long time for this type of opportunity. Let's see what he does with it.


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

Steelers' urgency produces clutch win

By Mike Prisuta
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, December 21, 2007



Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes beats the Rams' Ron Bartell for a 83-yard pass in the first quarter at Edward Jones Dome, Dec. 20, 2007.
Chaz Palla/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


ST. LOUIS- The Steelers were facing neither a win-and-in or make-or-break scenario Thursday night at the Edward Jones Dome.

Still, their game against the St. Louis Rams was important.

It meant a lot to the Steelers' AFC North Division championship hopes.

It meant a lot to their postseason conference standing.

And it probably meant a lot to their collective confidence.

The most encouraging development amid an outbreak of unpredictable pinball football that TV networks love and coaching staffs loathe was that the Steelers responded accordingly.

In the end, their 41-24 victory was achieved by grinding it out.

But to get themselves in a position to do so, the Steelers first had to attack with passion.

Too often this season the word "flat" had been uttered in the Steelers' locker room, after wins and losses. And too often they'd shown up at a road venue against an inferior team and underachieved.

Last night was different.

Last night mattered.

For the Steelers, that was the first step back.



Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger celebrates Nate Washington's second touchdown catch of the first half against the Rams at Edward Jones Dome, Dec. 20, 2007.
Chaz Palla/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians acknowledged a tone of urgency on the Steelers' first possession. With the Steelers backed up at the 4-yard line after a fumbled punt return by Allen Rossum, Arians had Ben Roethlisberger drop back into the end zone and let it fly.

That was the same Roethlisberger who had been sacked 43 times in the first 14 games.

Still, Arians came into this one desperately seeking the "chunks" of yards the Steelers had ripped off easily early in the season but had eluded them lately.

This time, Arians' aggressiveness produced an 83-yard "chunk" to wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

Coach Mike Tomlin took it from there on the second possession. Faced with a fourth-and-7 at the Steelers' 46 with just under five minutes remaining in a 7-7 game, the Steelers faked a punt. In most circumstances, such calls are predicated on an anticipated formation or personnel group from the opponent and can be checked out of easily if the expected look doesn't materialize. But you still have to want to go for it, if practical. And you have to be willing to live with the consequences if the bold stroke blows up in your face.

The reward for this risk was a 32-yard completion from punter Daniel Sepulveda to running back Najeh Davenport.

Tomlin and the Steelers were also in a do-what-needs-to-be-done mode on the kickoff that followed the touchdown that had given the Steelers a 24-14 lead midway through the second quarter.

Having already surrendered kickoff returns of 43 and 49 yards, the Steelers put starting outside linebacker James Harrison back onto the kickoff coverage team for wide receiver Willie Reid, who had a right shoulder injury.

Are there any other Pro Bowl linebackers that also cover kickoffs?

Even on the last possession of the first half, the Steelers oozed urgency.



Steelers receiver Nate Washington makes a 17-yard touchdown catch with the Rams' Jonathan Wade hanging on him in the second quarter at Edward Jones Dome, Dec. 20, 2007.
Chaz Palla/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


Up 24-17 and just 55 seconds from the break, they took over at their 39 with three timeouts remaining and came out in an empty backfield, with four wide receivers and a tight end deployed on either side of Roethlisberger.

A first-down sack scuttled their plan to post one more second-quarter score, but at least they weren't intending to waste the possession.

Those were too valuable on this night.

They'll all be from here on out.


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

Winning is good, but competence is weeks away

Friday, December 21, 2007
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
The Steelers' James Farrior (51) and Casey Hampton sack Rams quarterback Marc Bulger.


ST. LOUIS -- Even before the sobering announcement that Willie Parker had broken his leg got a firm grip on its target audience, there were plenty of ominous indicators about last night beyond the mere fact that the Rams' cheerleaders are no longer called the Embraceable Ewes.

Yeah, now they're officially just the St. Louis Rams Cheerleaders, I guess because you never substitute cleverness when good old perfectly obvious labeling will do.

As for what is currently being substituted for good old Steelers defense, the kind that leads the league and terrorizes the quarterback and engenders feelings of hysterical inadequacy in offensive coordinators coast-to-coast, well, those were the days.

The new thing, without Aaron Smith, without any impacting contribution from the guy who used to be Clark Haggans, and without any recoverable memory of how to get a sack until Casey Hampton backed Marc Bulger into James Farrior and snapped a funk of 13 sackless quarters at 9:36 Central Standard Time, remains in a netherworld of trouble.

The St. Louis Rams, with a fully deserved 3-11 record and an offensive line constructed of battered and rusted secondhand parts, scored on four of their first six possessions last night, forcing the Ben Roethlisberger-led offense into the untenable position of practically having to score every time it touched the ball.

Ben merely had to be perfect, and so he was, slinging another optimal 158.3 quarterback rating.

"Ben was great," Mike Tomlin said 15 minutes after Steelers 41, Rams 24. "He managed the game, took care of the ball, and made some big throws." All true, but the fact that the Steelers had to score on five of their first six possessions to take a rickety seven-point lead into the fourth quarter is not the kind of intelligence that foreshadows an extended January.



Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
The Steelers' Ike Taylor intercepts pass against the Rams in the fourth quarter.


It wasn't until Ike Taylor stepped in front of a desperate, high, fourth-down Bulger missile with four minutes to play and returned it 51 circuitous yards across the Edward Jones Dome carpet that Tomlin's defense appeared to have grown the semblance of competence again.

Actual competence may be weeks away, and this team might be history beforehand.

"Casey's sack was huge," said defensive end Brett Keisel of what was only the Steelers' second sack in the previous 153 opponent pass plays. "That really seemed to slow them down and everything seemed to change right then.

"Then Ike's play, that was the final dagger."

To that point, many of the daggers seemed self-inflicted from the standpoint of what was still, statistically, the NFL's top defense, but also the one that had allowed 87 points in the previous 11 quarters.

St. Louis scored on both trips into the red zone in the first half to take a 14-10 lead two minutes into the second quarter, which meant that the Steelers had been scored upon nine times in the opposition's previous 10 appearances inside the 20, seven of those scores being touchdowns.

Isaac Bruce caught seven Bulger throws for just about double the amount of yards he needed to supplant James Lofton as the NFL's third-leading career yardage man, and tight end Randy McMichael caught six others on a night Bulger would go 18 for 35 for 208 yards and three touchdowns. The run defense so demonstrably shredded only four days previous by Jacksonville's Fred Taylor did a decent job on St. Louis stud Steven Jackson, but Jackson still ripped off a 36-yard run and caught a touchdown pass on which he traveled nearly 40 yards laterally with virtually no pursuit.

"First of all, that's a pretty good offense over there," said Steelers tight end Heath Miller when asked if the offense feels like it had to score every time up the floor. "I know they've got offensive line problems, but they've got all their skill people healthy now, and anytime you go up against Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, you know you have to put points on the board.

"I think our defense is strong and they made a lot of big plays tonight, especially in the second half."

Just enough plays to avert a third consecutive loss, and perhaps convince itself that its quality hasn't been compromised, its authority still respected.

"We're good as far as confidence goes," said Keisel. "We know we're a good defense. A couple of teams have had some success against us, but we're not going to let that get us down."

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on December 21, 2007 at 1:24 am

With Parker out, it's Davenport's time to step up

Friday, December 21, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
Steelers running back Willie Parker is taken off the field on a cart after breaking a bone in his lower right leg in the first quarter.


ST. LOUIS -- It's not what the Steelers won last night that seems so significant today, although that 41-24 victory against the St. Louis Rams came at exactly the right time after the debacles against Jacksonville and New England.

It's what the Steelers lost that could haunt them in the playoffs.

Willie Parker.

How do you replace the NFL's No. 1 running back and even attempt to compete for the Super Bowl?

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will tell you the answer is obvious: You give the ball to Najeh Davenport.

"As a football team, we're not going to throw a pity party," Tomlin said.

You didn't think the boss was going to call it a season, did you?

Davenport certainly was the solution last night. Talk about an unexpected star. Ordinarily, the 32-yard pass he caught from punter Daniel Sepulveda on a fake punt late in the first quarter would have been his game highlight. Not on this night. Not when he did so much more by rushing for 123 yards and a touchdown and catching a 12-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

But all of that couldn't wipe away the pall in the Steelers' locker room. It always hurts when a teammate goes down, especially one who has been as valuable and durable as Parker.

"He's devastated. We're all devastated," wide receiver Hines Ward said.

Parker -- who came into the game with an NFL-leading 1,317 yards, six more than San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson -- had just one carry last night, his 321st and final carry of the season. What started as a routine sweep around right end ended with Parker being pulled down by linebacker Will Witherspoon and then hobbling to the sideline and being carted to the locker room. Moments later, Steelers orthopedic surgeon Jim Bradley had the X-rays in his hands behind the bench, a gruesome picture that revealed the awful truth: Parker had a fractured right fibula.

"That damn turf," Ward said.

No one felt Parker's pain more than Davenport.



Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
The Steelers' Najeh Davenport picks up yardage against the Rams in the second quarter.


It was little more than two years ago that Davenport, in what would be his final game with the Green Bay Packers, broke his right ankle in a game against the New Orleans Saints. He was making just his second career start that day and was off to a fast start with 54 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Then, suddenly, late in the first half, it was over for him.

Davenport remembers exactly how he felt that day. There's enormous disappointment in knowing you can't be there for your teammates the rest of the season. There's also the anguish that goes with the long, grueling rehab ahead.

Welcome to Parker's world.

"I've been talking to him since halftime," Davenport said of Parker. "I told him he can't think it's the end of the world. It's all about your spirits. If you get down on yourself, it's going to make the rehab that much harder."

Davenport provided a morale boost to his other teammates on the field. "I'm happy for and proud of Najeh Davenport," Tomlin said. "Not that we were surprised. It was just good to see. He's been a big part of what we've been doing all year."

Davenport started slowly last night, gaining just 4 yards on his first four carries. His big play early came when he lined up as the blocking back in front of Sepulveda and snuck behind the middle of the Rams' defense to pull in the long pass that set up a field goal and gave the Steelers a 10-7 lead.

After that, Davenport was positively Parker-like. He had three carries for 25 yards on the touchdown drive that gave the Steelers a 17-14 lead, then five carries for 38 yards on the scoring drive that nudged the lead to 24-14. He scored the touchdown, pulling in that 12-yard pass from Roethlisberger over the middle and shrugging off linebacker Quinton Culberson on his way to the end zone.

Davenport also was huge on the Steelers' two second-half scoring drives. His 18-yard run early in the third quarter helped set up his 1-yard touchdown run that boosted the lead to 31-17. Then, after the Rams pulled within a touchdown, he had a 16-yard run to set up the 29-yard field goal by Jeff Reed that iced the win.

Davenport finished with 123 yards on 24 carries, the second 100-yard game of his career. His best day as a pro came in 2004 -- also against the Rams -- when he made his first start in place of injured Ahman Green and rushed for 178 yards on 19 carries.

Too bad the Steelers can't play the Rams in the playoffs.

It's one thing to have a big day against a lousy 3-11 team that was playing out the string. Now, Davenport must prove he can do it Dec. 30 against the Baltimore Ravens in the final regular-season game, not to mention probably Jacksonville or Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs.

Can Davenport get it done?

"I'm ready to do whatever I have to do to help this offense," he said.

As Tomlin will tell you, Davenport has no choice but to do it now.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on December 21, 2007 at 12:07 am

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Roethlisberger earns Pro Bowl selection

First for young quarterback; Faneca, Harrison, Parker, Polamalu also picked

Wednesday, December 19, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 16: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers calls signals against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field December 16, 2007 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Ben Roethlisberger entered this season with a new head coach, new coordinator, new quarterbacks coach and a desire to return to the old days.

He had to prove that his first two seasons were not flukes after his tumble in 2006.

"A lot of people wrote me off as a two-year kind of hit wonder," Roethlisberger said. "So it's good to be able to bounce back."

His bounce-back performance was officially acknowledged yesterday when he was elected to his first Pro Bowl as a backup, adding another honor to his growing list.

The game will be played Feb. 10 in Honolulu.

Roethlisberger was joined by four teammates, including another first-timer in linebacker James Harrison. Not only did Harrison make it in his first season as a starter for the Steelers, replacing former Pro Bowler Joey Porter on the right outside, but he also was chosen as a starter for the Pro Bowl.



Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker (39) rushes for five yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first quarter of NFL football action in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007. Parker rushed for 100 yards in a 29-22 loss to the Jaguars.
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)


"I'm as happy as a kid in a candy store," said Harrison, who usually carries a Jack Lambert-like dour look about him. "This is probably the most you'll see me smile in a long time."

Guard Alan Faneca also was picked to start, his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl. Only six Steelers have made it more often and all are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Joe Greene (10), Jack Lambert (9), Mike Webster (9), Franco Harris (9), Ernie Stautner (9) and Jack Ham (8).

Two others chosen as backups for the AFC squad were Willie Parker, the NFL's leading rusher who made it for the second consecutive time, and strong safety Troy Polamalu, making his fourth trip in a row.

Roethlisberger did not hide his delight at making his first Pro Bowl, joining mainstays Tom Brady, the starter, and Peyton Manning on the AFC team.

"From the time you're a kid, it's always a goal to win a Super Bowl, get to a Pro Bowl, all that stuff," Roethlisberger said. "I'm not going to lie, it is a great honor. But a lot is to attributable to the rest of my offensive guys, my team."

Roethlisberger became the first quarterback to compile a 13-0 record as a starter in 2004, his rookie season. He was the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl the following year.



Troy Polamalu

Then came his infamous 2006. After a motorcycle accident in June and an appendectomy five days before the opener in September, a mediocre season followed in which he led the NFL with 23 pass interceptions and his passer rating dropped more than 20 points to 75.4, as his team went from Super Bowl champions to 8-8.

Today, he's third in the AFC and fourth in the NFL with a 100.5 passer rating and he has 11 interceptions. He broke Terry Bradshaw's 1978 team record with 29 touchdown passes, and the Steelers lead the AFC North Division at 9-5.

His teammates and coaches say hitting bottom last season in more ways than one motivated Roethlisberger in 2007.

"He's a great quarterback," said defensive end Brett Keisel, among Roethlisberger's closest friends, "and I think what happened last year has just caused him to maybe put that much more [pressure] on himself to come out this year and play really well for this team.

"I think he put a lot of what happened last year on his shoulders -- not only with his off-the-field things but with what happened with us. It wasn't all his fault, but obviously some of it he took to heart and he came out this year and played really well."



Alan Faneca

Hines Ward, who has been the leading receiver in each of Roethlisberger's four seasons, thinks his quarterback has matured.

"There was so much added pressure, coming back from the motorcycle accident and that appendectomy," Ward said. "He was trying so hard just to prove a point that he could come back. This year, he's come back more focused."

That new coordinator, Bruce Arians, asked Roethlisberger to help him streamline the playbook, then put more responsibility on his shoulders. Roethlisberger has the ability to scratch some scripted plays and suggest his own, and he makes the pass-blocking changes at the line.

"He's been consistently good this year," Arians said. "The numbers bear that out: the interceptions are down, the touchdowns way up, the completion percentage up. And he's made plays, he's made the special plays his ability allowed him to do on a consistent level. And when your peers see that, they recognize that."

Arians predicted more improvement as the years go on. "He's just scratching the surface. He has a lot of ability, his understanding of the game has increased tremendously and I really look forward to what he can become."



PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 02: James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles Chris Henry #15 of the Cincinnati Bengals on December 2, 2007 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 24-10. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Harrison, at 29, has become an overnight sensation. Like Parker, he was an undrafted rookie, three years before he finally made the roster. He was the No. 1 backup for three seasons until the Steelers released Porter and turned to him.

Harrison leads the team with 8 1/2 sacks and produced one of the franchise's legendary defensive performance the night they honored their 75th anniversary team. On Nov. 5 at Heinz Field, Harrison had 3 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception in a 38-7 rout of Baltimore.

"That's football justice right there," coach Mike Tomlin said after learning Harrison will start in the Pro Bowl.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on December 19, 2007 at 12:00 am

Monday, December 17, 2007

Big Ben sets Steelers single-season TD record

By Scott Brown
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, December 17, 2007



Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completes a pass to Willie Parker, while being hit by Jaguars linebacker Daryl Smith during the third quarter Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007, at Heinz Field. Jacksonville defeated the Steelers, 29-22.
Christopher Horner/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes in the Steelers' 29-22 loss to the Jaguars on Sunday, setting the team's single-season record (29). Not bad for a guy who only practiced one day last week because of a sore shoulder. Roethlisberger completed 16-of-33 passes for 145 yards, but he was victimized by a handful of dropped passes. He also was sacked five times. Roethlisberger, who broke the touchdown record that Terry Bradshaw set in 1978, sidestepped questions about his shoulder. Asked if it would be well enough for Roethlisberger to play Thursday night, when the Steelers visit the St. Louis Rams, he said, "we have to wait until the adrenaline comes down, but I'm sure we'll be ready."



Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is dropped to the ground by the Jaguars' Bobby McCray during third-quarter action at Heinz Field, Dec. 16, 2007. The Jaguars won the game 29-22.
Philip G. Pavely/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


• Starting cornerback Ike Taylor hurt his left knee in the second quarter, but he didn't come out of the game until early in the fourth.

"They just told me to relax," Taylor said of the Steelers' trainers and medical personnel. "They told me to sit down."

Taylor said he doesn't know how badly his knee is hurt. He said the team will determine today if he needs to undergo any tests. Taylor said he wanted to keep playing yesterday but added, "You can't be too stubborn."

• Starting left tackle Marvel Smith left the game in the fourth quarter because of a bad back.

"He was in a great deal of pain," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

Max Starks played in place of Smith, who has battled back problems all season. Kickoff and punt returner Allen Rossum left the game in the third quarter after taking a hard hit to the head.

• Running back Willie Parker (100 yards on 14 carries) posted his eighth 100-yard rushing game of the season.

• Wide receiver Hines Ward has caught at least one pass in 145 consecutive games, extending his team record.

• Steelers inactives were wide receiver Willie Reid, safety Grant Mason, linebacker Andre Frazier, guard/center Darnell Stapleton, offensive tackle Trai Essex, tight end Jon Dekker, defensive end Ryan McBean and quarterback Brian St. Pierre.


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

Steelers' loss reveals chilling truth

By Mike Prisuta
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, December 17, 2007



Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger watches as time runs out on the Steelers and they drop their first home game in a 29-22 loss to Heinz Field, Dec. 16, 2007.
Chaz Palla/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


It was an epic battle that combined physicality with a struggle against the elements as well as a determined opponent in a December setting of great consequence and significance.
Great theater, in other words.

And, for the Steelers, most revealing.

They came back from a 22-7, fourth-quarter deficit to tie the score, 22-22, on a two-point conversion that had to be witnessed to be appreciated.

Their quarterback was under siege again but still managed to engineer that fourth-quarter rally and in the process break the franchise record for touchdown passes.

And their tight end was so determined upon catching a desperation, fourth-down pass in the flat that he launched himself toward the marker in a potentially defeat-defying leap that wasn't officially determined to have come up a half-yard short until an extensive video review.

But in the NFL, the bottom line is the bottom line.

That being the case, the Steelers must accept the 29-22 loss the Jacksonville Jaguars shoved down their throats in the snow.

The rest of the NFL can interpret it as defining as far as the Steelers are concerned.

They're still on course to win the AFC North Division.

To do so, the Steelers need only defeat a three-win St. Louis team that was lit up Sunday by Green Bay and a four-win Baltimore team that lost yesterday to previously winless Miami.

Forget those road woes; the Steelers will get it together enough down the stretch to beat the Rams and Ravens.



The Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew picks up third-down yardage against the Steelers at Heinz Field, Dec. 16, 2007. The Jaguars defeated the Steelers, 29-22.
Philip G. Pavely/TRIBUNE-REVIEW


But the lingering question in the wake of what the Jaguars did to the Steelers in their previously impenetrable fortress on the North Shore is a sobering "What's the point?"

For every Ben Roethlisberger or Heath Miller highlight at Heinz, there was a more memorable sequence that exposed the Steelers' inadequacies on defense.

Jacksonville's 20-play, 74-yard touchdown drive in 9:40 to open the third quarter said pretty much all that needs to be said regarding the pecking order of the respective combatants.

Since another statement was ultimately required, Jacksonville provided it via an eight-play, 73-yard march for a touchdown that immediately followed the completion of the Steelers' miraculous comeback from that 22-7, fourth-quarter deficit.

On Dec. 9, the New England Patriots passed the Steelers silly.

Yesterday, Jacksonville ran right through the Steelers.

To counter such developments, the Steelers have Roethlisberger, but even he can only do so much, particularly when he spends so much of his time running for his life or picking himself up off the snowy deck.

"He came in at halftime and said, 'We gotta stop letting Ben get sacked,' " wide receiver Santonio Holmes said of coach Mike Tomlin's address to his team. "It didn't show. It continued to happen. He was forced out of the pocket too many times and forced to throw the ball away half the time and not where he wanted to put it."

Afterward, Tomlin told the media his team was making too many fundamental mistakes on offense and defense, missed tackles, dropped passes, etc.

Those are not the characteristics of a team that's destined to do anything in the playoffs but lose.

It may be an exciting demise, but for the Steelers the writing is on the wall.


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

Jaguars turn sloppy weather into clean victory

Monday, December 17, 2007
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 16: Maurice Jones-Drew #32 of the Jacksonville Jaguars extends forward for a first down as he is tackled by Larry Foote #50 and Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field December 16, 2007 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Jaguars won 29-22. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)


Is it Maurice Jones-Drew, or Maurice Jones-Draw?

Because in my copious notes from yesterday's wind-whipped walk in a Steelers winter blunderland, I've got Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew down for two Maurice Jones-Drew draws that savaged Pittsburgh's stunningly vulnerable defense.

Two electrifying, classical, playbook draw plays that were a critical component of a 29-22 Jaguars victory plainly established Jacksonville as a more viable playoff entity than the Steelers, at least for the moment, even if the Jaguars still haven't clinched a wild card berth in the hyper-competitive AFC South.

"We controlled the line of scrimmage," center Brad Meester said from what was a highly unusual vantage point for such an observation, namely the visiting locker room at Heinz Field. "I think we sent a huge message. They've got a great team, but it's huge to be playing your best football in December. It's the right time to be peaking."

The twin peaks of yesterday's fourth Jaguars conquest of Pittsburgh in the past five collisions between these two clubs were scaled by the 5-7, 208-pound Jones-Drew, once on third-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 28 early in the second half, and again at an even more urgent station, 3rd-and-11 from the Steelers' 32 with three minutes left and the scoreboard illuminating four deuces, 22-22.

Jones-Drew sliced into the squishy Steelers run defense for 17 yards on the first one, resuscitating the scoring drive that put Jacksonville up by nine points, and when the home club rallied for the 22-22 draw nearly a quarter later, Jones-Drew fuel-injected the winning drive. He took the same handoff on the same play from quarterback David Garrard and thundered 20 lethal yards right down Main Street.

The brilliant Fred Taylor scored on a 12-yard run two plays later to boost the Jaguars into the lead for good.

"You guys should be talking to the offensive linemen, because they did this," Jones-Drew advised a knot of reporters at his locker. "All we had to do was find the holes. We were able to throw the ball a little bit, but with the wind, it was tough. We had to run and we knew this was going to be a man's game today. We kept communicating, me and Fred, and when he'd come out he'd tell me what he was seeing, and when I came out, I'd tell him what I was seeing."

Mostly they were seeing scads of snow-blown daylight, because those 224 rushing yards against the Steelers were no mirage. Taylor got 147 on 25 carries, Jones-Drew another 69 on just 12, 37 of them on the two back-breaking draw plays.

"We're not some soft Southern team," offensive tackle Tony Pashos said 20 minutes after Jacksonville won precisely the kind of environmental hardship at which the Steelers are expected to excel. "We played very tough today, played with a chip on our shoulder. We never care what the score says, we go where we have to and do what we have to do."

The Jaguars have 10 wins and dates with Oakland and Houston remaining on a developing schedule that should deliver them the sixth playoff season in franchise history in plenty of time for Christmas. When they get there, no one will be challenging their credentials.

This team has won 10 of its past 13, including six in a row against the now highly suspect AFC North, in which the Cleveland Browns are co-leaders, and is 5-2 on the road this year. The Jacksonville offense had been averaging more than 28 points over the past seven games, then put up 29 yesterday against a team that had been limiting opponents to 9.1 points per game at home this season.

"I think this team has a real good feel about what we can accomplish this year," head coach Jack Del Rio said. "I think the guys are hungry for more. We've played some good football teams this year."

For some long stretches yesterday, you had to wonder whether Pittsburgh would be counted among those.

To start the third quarter, Jacksonville embarked on a 20-play odyssey that lasted about as long as a Russian novel playing out against the whitened backdrop. To sustain it, the Jaguars converted two third-and-8s, one third-and-9, one third-and-10, and two fourth-and-1s. Del Rio rolled the dice on fourth down 29 times coming into yesterday's game, 10 more than any other club. He went 3 for 3 yesterday.

The 20-play drive took 9:40 off the clock, which was primarily the reason the Steelers lost the time-of-possession battle for the first time this season. The game-winner was a 63-yard, eight-play affair with Taylor rumbling the final 12.

"The offensive line deserves a majority of the credit," Taylor said. "They opened up some great lanes for me. But it doesn't matter where, our field, their field, it doesn't matter because we just go out and play football."

"It feels great to be a Jaguar right now," Garrard said. "These guys played their butts off today in sloppy conditions, a sloppy track, windy day; but we did enough to come out of here with a win. That's how it's going to be pretty much from here on out, especially when we get into the playoffs."

You might want to write that one down.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on December 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

Steelers' luster melting away

Monday, December 17, 2007
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger tries to scramble away from pressure in the first quarter. (12/16/2007)


On a typically cold Pittsburgh December afternoon, the fast-fading Steelers lost in atypical fashion, with the great Hines Ward dropping passes he almost always catches and the team's once-dominant rush defense being savaged by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

We all should have seen this coming. Really, this 29-22 defeat in the wind and snow of Heinz Field isn't surprising at all.

This is a football team that hasn't been the same since it peaked Nov. 5 in a Monday night thrashing of the Baltimore Ravens. Visions of a deep run in the playoffs accompanied that victory, but in retrospect, especially after the 4-10 Ravens lost to previously winless Miami yesterday, that 31-point win isn't quite so impressive.

And, for certain, nothing since has been.

After beating the Ravens, the Steelers rallied from a 15-point deficit to defeat Cleveland, a team it had whacked by 27 points two months earlier; lost to the 3-11 New York Jets; beat the 1-13 Dolphins by three points; beat nine-loss Cincinnati; lost by 21 to New England in a game that wasn't that close.

The loss to Jacksonville yesterday left the Steelers with a 9-5 record, same as Cleveland. If the teams end the season tied, the Steelers will win the AFC North Division based on their head-to-head competition against the Browns. Judging from the weak remaining opponents both teams have -- the Steelers play St. Louis and Baltimore, the Browns Cincinnati and San Francisco -- the Steelers will win the division and get the first-round home game in the playoffs that goes with that accomplishment.

But no one necessarily will be saying they're the best team in the AFC North.

After opening the season 4-1, the Steelers are a mediocre 5-4. Their only wins of note are against the Browns and Seattle Seahawks. But their losses tell us more. They were beaten by Arizona, Denver and the Jets, teams that are 6-8, 6-8 and 3-11. Teams with realistic postseason hopes don't lose those kinds of games.

And when they're in a showdown against a first-rate opponent at home, as was the case yesterday, they have to perform better.

"We're not playing well enough to win right now," said coach Mike Tomlin, who showed as much anger as at any point this season. "We can't look at anyone else to solve our problems. The answers to our problems are right in that room."

Clearly, though, they weren't there yesterday.

Not only did Fred Taylor rip through the Steelers for 147 yards on 25 carries, but Maurice Jones-Drew added 69 yards on 12 carries and, in total, the Jaguars romped for a stunning 224 yards on the ground.

It was the most rushing yards the Steelers had allowed since Nov. 19, 2000, when Taylor ran wild for 234 of the Jaguars' 240 yards.

The total dominance the Jaguars displayed obviously reflects poorly on the defense and indicates the team's one-time formula for victory is no more. It once was almost automatic that if the Steelers got a 100-yard rushing game they won. Well, they've lost two in a row despite consecutive 100-yard performances from Willie Parker.

Much was made of how the Steelers came back from a 22-7 fourth-quarter deficit to tie the score. But all that was erased by a too-easy, eight-play, 73-yard drive put together by the Jaguars after the Steelers had tied it. On that drive, Taylor ran for gains of 9, 13 and 12 yards and Jones-Drew for 20.

Inside linebacker Larry Foote got to the heart of the matter.

"We've got to be in our gaps, we know that," he said. "We pride ourselves on being a smart team. But when [the Jaguars] roll up their sleeves, we know they're going to run. The fundamentals go out the window. We've got to be tougher than them, beat our guy, make the tackle."

There was no more disheartening display of authority by the Jaguars than on the first possession of the second half. They took the kickoff and moved 74 yards on 20 plays that ate up 9:40.

What the Jaguars did to the Steelers is what the Steelers used to do to other teams.

Ward's two drops were large, particularly the first one. On a second-and-12 from their 17, with the Steelers leading, 7-3, in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger hit Ward in the chest with a pass that would have been good for a first down. But Ward couldn't hold the ball. When a third-down pass also went incomplete, the Steelers had to punt, and from there the Jaguars began a 68-yard touchdown drive that put them ahead.

"I didn't make the plays I was supposed to," Ward said. "I'm not going to blame it on the wind or the snow. I have great pride in myself to make all the plays if [the ball] touches my hand."

Nor were there any heroics from Roethlisberger, who threw for three touchdowns but who completed only 16 of 33 passes for 146 yards. On the Steelers' final drive, with Heinz Field rocking in anticipation of a come-from-behind win, Roethlisberger completed only 2 of 6 passes for 9 yards.

The Steelers still look like a team headed to the playoffs, but perhaps no time in their history has the thought of a trip to the postseason generated so little excitement.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.
First published on December 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

Jacksonville out-toughs the league's top defense

Monday, December 17, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
The Jaguars' Fred Taylor walks into the end zone for the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter against the Steelers yesterday at Heinz Field. (12/16/2007)


Steelers linebacker Larry Foote nailed it.

Not Jacksonville Jaguars running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, certainly. Foote and his buddies on the once-proud Steelers defense barely touched those guys yesterday. Taylor and Jones-Drew combined to run for 216 yards in their 29-22 win, which wasn't anywhere near as close as the score indicates.

No, Foote nailed the story of this gruesome mauling.

"They showed us who's tough today."

Do you have any idea how hard that admission is for a football player? An inside linebacker, no less? It's one thing to say the other guys were better, which the Jaguars clearly were. It's something much different -- much more painful -- to say you were, ah, soft.

"They whupped our butts all day," Foote said.

There were explanations, of course. There always are explanations. The Steelers didn't tackle well. Their gap control was awful. Defensive end Aaron Smith didn't play because of his season-ending biceps injury, a bigger loss than anyone outside the team's headquarters realizes. Taylor is a fabulous running back -- "Spectacular," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called him; "A beast," defensive end Brett Keisel said -- and Jones-Drew provided a nice change of pace.

But it kept coming back to one thing.

"They just ran it down our throats," linebacker James Farrior said. "We couldn't hold up on defense."

What's amazing is the defense came in ranked No. 1 in the NFL, which just shows how deceptive statistics can be. That defense has played poorly in large chunks of too many games, especially in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars won with an eight-play, 73-yard drive after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led something of a miraculous comeback from a 22-7 fourth-quarter deficit to forge a 22-22 tie. This was the fourth time in the Steelers' five losses that their defense crumbled at the end and allowed long scoring drives, the others against Arizona, Denver and the New York Jets.

Somehow, though, this one seemed worst.



Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Jaguars running back Fred Taylor picks up a first down against the Steelers in the second half. (12/16/2007)


It was at home, for one thing. It was in a game the Steelers badly needed to maintain tight control of their playoff fortunes. And it was against a team that didn't try to trick 'em the way the New England Patriots did a week earlier when quarterback Tom Brady rocked their defense for 399 passing yards and four touchdowns.

Who could have guessed the Steelers would lose two in a row when their offense didn't have a turnover in either game and running back Willie Parker ran for 100 yards in each?

Who knew the defense could play so poorly, especially against the run?

This was the first time in more than seven years that the Steelers allowed the opponent to rush for 200 yards. Remember how much pride the defense took in allowing only one runner to get 100 yards in 62 games before the Jets' Thomas Jones did the trick Nov. 18? Well, now it's happened twice in five games.

"I don't know what's going on," Keisel said. "I wish I could tell you."

Keisel headed home immediately to watch the game tape and start looking for answers, something he does after every defeat. If you call him a masochist, especially after this game, he probably wouldn't disagree. "But it's something I have to do or I'll go nuts."

Keisel didn't believe his eyes when he watched the Jaguars' winning drive. Jones-Drew ran for 20 of his 69 yards on a third-and-11 draw play from the Steelers' 32 and Taylor had runs of 9, 13 and 12 yards, those final 12 coming when he went untouched off right tackle into the end zone. Taylor finished with 147 yards on 25 carries, his fourth consecutive 100-yard game.

Keisel also probably wanted to climb under his blanket when the tape got to the Jaguars' touchdown drive to start the third quarter. These are numbers you don't see often in an NFL game: 20 plays for 74 yards in nine minutes, 40 seconds. The Jaguars converted four third downs and two fourth downs on the drive.

Oh, brother.

Now, suddenly, the Steelers find themselves in a fight to win the AFC North Division and -- worse -- maybe even make the playoffs. They must bounce back quickly from this physical beating to play Thursday night at St. Louis and finish the regular season Dec. 30 at Baltimore.

Their troubles on the road are bad enough -- a 2-4 record -- but they'll have to play those two games without Smith and perhaps top cornerback Ike Taylor, who left in the second half yesterday with a knee injury.

"If there's no sense of urgency now, something's wrong," Keisel said. "We'll see what type of character this team has."

Character isn't the problem.

The question is this:

Will the Steelers find a way to man up and win two road games against dreadful teams to restore a little momentum heading into the playoffs?

A better question, maybe, after this licking:

Can they?

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on December 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Old-school approach returns with Jaguars

By Mike Prisuta
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, December 16, 2007



JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 9: Fred Taylor #28 of the Jacksonville Jaguars runs for a touchdown in a game against the Carolina Panthers at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on December 9, 2007 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Jaguars beat the Panthers 37-6. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Last Sunday, the Steelers' No. 1-ranked defense ran up against a pass-happy attack it just couldn't stop.

Today, the Steelers will encounter an offense that intends to run right at them, which is just the way the Steelers like it.

The Jacksonville Jaguars run the ball well, so it's not as if the Steelers' defense is in for a much-needed breather.

But after watching New England run the ball eight times on purpose in a 21-point pasting of the Steelers, one that included the Patriots attempting to pass on 27 of 29 second-half snaps, anything is preferable to being spread out and carved up again in what amounts to a never-ending 7-on-7 drill.

The NFL may be a copy-cat league, but Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio has his own ideas about the way the game ought to be played.
It's not that Del Rio is anti-pass; he's just much more of a run/stop the run traditionalist at heart.

"You do what you think you can do with your guys to win the game," Del Rio said. "(New England) happens to have a very talented quarterback that they trusted to get the ball in his hands.

"We believe in the running game, in blocking and tackling, in doing some of the fundamentals that you need to do well to win. The Steelers and Jaguars both pride themselves on being able to run it and being able to stop the run. We know it's going to be a physical confrontation."

The Patriots are undefeated, on the verge of shattering a couple of historic records and appear destined to win their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons, so there can be no questioning their approach.

Still, for fans of blocking and tackling, it won't get much better than Steelers-Jags.

The two teams that will collide today at Heinz Field are among seven in the NFL that rank in the top 10 in rushing and rushing defense.

The Jaguars are second in rushing and fifth in rush defense.

The Steelers are third in rushing and second in rush defense.

That being the case, perhaps the Steelers' throwback uniforms would have been more appropriate this week.

Both teams are also led by quarterbacks enjoying breakout campaigns and boasting passer ratings of over 100.

But even with Ben Roethlisberger and David Garrard performing as well as they have, the Steelers and Jaguars rank 1 and 3 in rushing attempts in the NFL (437 for the Steelers, 429 for the Jaguars).

"I don't know that it's a dying philosophy," Del Rio said. "Certainly, there have been numerous rules changes and emphasis-points made that encourage the passing game.

"Balance, in our case, is something we strive to have. We believe that we can throw it and we believe that we can run it and we're looking to do both. I know the Steelers are the same way."

That should provide a refreshing dose of two things last Sunday's game at New England lacked -- contrast and contact.

Enjoy it while it lasts.


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

Hot Stove: We will ... come up with a new slogan

Sunday, December 16, 2007
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Anyone taking jabs at the Pirates in 2008 will have to find a fresher approach than poking fun at the marketing slogan.

In other words:

We will ... find new material.

Yes, the "We will" slogan, born in early 2006 and stamped all over the team's broadcast advertising, billboards, PNC Park staff uniforms and even on a giant, oval sign outside the players' clubhouse -- perhaps they were supposed to touch it on the way to the field, Notre Dame-style -- is no more. Management has removed signs from the ballpark, the team's official Web site is without a slogan atop the home page, and all other traces soon will be obliterated, too.

The "We will" slogan was formed after an outside marketing group performed an intensive study of everything about the Pirates' business practices for several months, beginning in late 2005. The slogan was intended to be flexible, fun and, above all, it was intended to stay in place for years.

We will ... persevere.

We will ... work hard.

The only one the Pirates never dared use: We will ... win.

But, when former marketing director Tim Schuldt left for a similar position with a North Carolina speedway early last year, that took away perhaps the slogan's most ardent backer.

The Pirates do not have a new slogan yet, but one suggestion making the rounds: "Let's Go Bucs!"

Imagine that: A marketing survey conducted by opening one's ears at the ballpark.



Buried treasure

• Firm word surfaced in the past week that it was the Pirates, not the Cleveland Indians, who pulled out of that five-player trade involving Jason Bay at the winter meetings. The decision, made jointly through the entire chain of command, was that the value for Bay was not enough. The deal was Bay and Ronny Paulino for Franklin Gutierrez, Kelly Shoppach and Cliff Lee or a minor-league pitcher.

• Two players the Pirates recently designated for assignment, first baseman Brad Eldred and reliever Brian Rogers, yesterday became free agents. The Pirates immediately re-signed Rogers to a minor-league contract, but Eldred probably will pursue other options.

• Although management has strongly considered offering multi-year contracts to Freddy Sanchez and Matt Capps, no approach has been made yet on either front.

• Still available for bench help is Craig Wilson, who said this week he is healthy and swinging after his shoulder surgery in June. As for a return to the Pirates: "I would definitely be interested. I had a great time while I was there and never really wanted to leave." The shoulder troubled Wilson, 31, for nearly two years, contributing to his struggles with three teams since leaving the Pirates. Remember: Wilson hit seven pinch-hit home runs in 2001.

• Baseball America's No. 1-rated prospect in the Hawaiian Winter League after batting .299 with a .386 on-base percentage and tons of plate presence: Yes, Matt Wieters, the player Dave Littlefield bypassed in the June draft. Scouts compare him to Jason Varitek.

• The Pirates genuinely are enticed by the idea of Ryan Doumit as an outfielder, but only if he can get himself into peak shape this offseason.

• Andrew McCutchen might well open in Altoona. He has played only 17 games above Class AA, and the Pirates want to give him plenty of work going after outside offspeed stuff. Chris Duffy should be Class AAA Indianapolis' center fielder.

• Neil Walker, back home in the North Hills after 38 games in the Mexican Pacific League, batted .268 with four home runs and 17 RBIs. Sounds OK, but he had only six hits, no home runs and three RBIs in his final 42 at-bats. That start-fast-finish-slow trait has been ominously prevalent since his wrist surgery two years ago.

• Only 60 days until pitchers and catchers report.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.
First published on December 16, 2007 at 12:00 am

Polamalu in the crosshairs

Sunday, December 16, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Sat around with Troy Polamalu for nearly an hour the other day, talking money, among other subjects.

It was a fascinating conversation.

Polamalu is the Steelers' highest-paid player and will be until Ben Roethlisberger does a new deal after the season. That is a blessing for all the obvious reasons. A $33 million contract provides a lot of peace of mind. But it also can be a burden. The expectations rise. It's no longer good enough for Polamalu to be a Pro Bowl safety. He has to be All-World. He has to make a dozen big plays every game. He has to lead the team to a division title and the Super Bowl.

It's not working that way for Polamalu, at least not so far.

Yes, the Steelers still are on track to win the AFC North. But they hardly looked like a Super Bowl contender in that three-touchdown beating at New England last Sunday. It shouldn't shock anyone if they lose at home today to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It's also true the Steelers' defense still ranks No. 1 in the NFL despite giving up 399 passing yards and four touchdowns to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. But Polamalu hasn't had the same noticeable impact on it, and not just because he missed the past three games with a knee injury. He doesn't have a sack this season. He doesn't have an interception. Chances are he won't make the Pro Bowl for the first time in four seasons when the rosters are announced Tuesday, although those teams often are based on reputation rather than performance.

"I'm just trying to make the Pittsburgh Steelers right now," Polamalu said.

That's not the problem. Polamalu will play today. He injured his right knee when he banged it against the turf at Giants Stadium in the game against the New York Jets Nov. 18 -- "Please, please, please, Mr. Rooney, keep the grass at Heinz Field," he said -- and would have played against the Patriots if not for a knee-on-knee collision with a teammate in practice a few days before the game.

What's troubling is no one knows what to expect from Polamalu this afternoon. He missed three games with a similar knee injury late last season, then returned against the Baltimore Ravens and was beaten for long touchdowns by wide receivers Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams.

"That was me, that wasn't my knee," Polamalu said. "I was beaten, and they put the ball right on the money. I remember my wife saying after the game, 'That Steve McNair is the greatest quarterback ever!'"

Polamalu and the Steelers will face another good one today -- David Garrard. He has thrown just one interception in 274 attempts, which isn't encouraging, especially considering the Steelers have just eight interceptions. But the Jaguars don't ask Garrard to win games the way the Patriots do with Brady. Polamalu said their formula is the same as the 15-1 Steelers from '04: Run the ball and play good defense.

"Fred Taylor is probably the best back I've seen in the NFL and Maurice Jones-Drew is on his way to being a great one," Polamalu said. "We definitely have to stop the run first."



The Steelers will ask Polamalu to help with that. They'll ask him to disguise his blitzes and coverages to confuse the young Garrard. And they'll ask him to make the plays that are there.

The rest of us, I'm guessing, will ask for a lot more.

"It's crazy," Polamalu said. "Am I supposed to make a play here" -- he tapped the center of the cafeteria table -- "when I make this amount of money and make plays here, here, here and here" -- he tapped the four corners of the table -- "because I make more? That's just crazy."

Not that the expectations change how Polamalu plays.

"I have to play the same techniques if I'm playing for free or for Bill Gates money," he said. "It's not like I see the ball coming and it's green and I'm thinking, 'I've got to make this play because I make the most money.'

"People can expect anything they want. My expectations for myself are always going to be higher. They can throw cups at the television when I get beat, but it hurts me 100 times worse.

"I know what defense we're playing and what I'm supposed to be doing. I could have two interceptions and two sacks and you'd say, 'Troy, you were great.' But I might have been the one beaten on a play when you're thinking, 'That's Ike Taylor's fault.' I know. That's why I've left good games and even Pro Bowl and All-Pro and Super Bowl seasons feeling a little disappointed."

Polamalu said he has had chances to make plays this season -- and failed on some -- but not as many opportunities as he had in other seasons. He knows the plays he has missed could cost him that Pro Bowl trip.

"I'd like to go again. I think everyone wants to make it," he said. "There's nothing better than going from the Super Bowl to the parade to the Pro Bowl. I remember being at the Pro Bowl [after the '05 season] and riding down in the elevator with John Lynch, Steve Hutchinson and Peyton Manning. We beat all three of those guys in the playoffs that year."

Polamalu grinned. He loved that elevator ride.

This season, though, it's clear Polamalu gladly would settle for two out of three. Who really needs another Hawaii trip if you get to the Super Bowl and that victory parade? He's not ruling it out happening for the Steelers despite that whipping in New England.

"That game was embarrassing. Embarrassing to all of us. But, quite honestly, it was probably the best thing for this team right now. We know we've got a long way to go."

Everybody, Polamalu said.

Starting with the highest-paid guy.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on December 16, 2007 at 12:00 am

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Steelers lose DE Smith for rest of season

Veteran put on injured reserve with torn biceps

Wednesday, December 12, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith, listed as 6-5, 298, went head-to-head against tackles who outweighed him by 50 pounds. (vs. Raiders 10/29/2006)


The Steelers might have a more difficult time overcoming the loss of Aaron Smith in New England than they do the Patriots' 34-13 victory Sunday.

Smith, placed on injured reserve yesterday with a torn biceps, was among their best two or three defensive players, if not No. 1.

Even coach Mike Tomlin admitted yesterday that Smith's absence might affect how they play schematically without their tower of strength at left end in their 3-4 defense.

"I'm sure it will, but more subtle [than] sweeping changes," Tomlin said. "We will put that together as the week moves forward."

Rookie Ryan McBean, a fourth-round draft choice who has spent the season on the practice squad, was signed to the 53-man roster yesterday. But no one can replace what Smith has meant to the NFL's top-ranked defense.

Playing on the strong side in a 3-4 is not conducive to producing the kind of statistics that put players in the Pro Bowl. It's a job that requires brute strength to play the run on the inside or the outside, taking on the blocks so the linebackers can swoop in to make the play, and often being double-teamed by the tackle and tight end.

Yet Smith made the Pro Bowl after the 2004 season when he had a career-high eight sacks, and he was second on the team last season with 21 quarterback hurries/pressures, two behind leader Brett Keisel.

Smith had started 116 consecutive regular-season games, beginning in his second season in 2000 before he missed games seven and eight this season with a sprained knee.

He was scheduled to have surgery on his biceps, and he should be fine for next season, which will be his 10th with the Steelers after they drafted him in the fourth round in 1999 from Northern Colorado.

"That's a big loss for him and for our football team," Tomlin said.

"But again, like I always say, it is the nature of this game. It's an attrition game. People get injured, other people have an opportunity to step up and that's the way we will approach it.

"But I am sorry for Aaron because that guy loves to play football. He is an extremely tough worker and a good leader for our football team."

Smith, listed as 6-5, 298, went head-to-head against tackles who outweighed him by 50 pounds and is an iron man in the way he plays, in addition to his longevity. Keisel told Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook in October that he considers Smith the team's best defensive lineman.

"He's what all of us want to be, the guy we all try to emulate. He's our leader and we all follow him," Keisel said.

The Steelers now must find a way to replace him, and Tomlin said he will try it with two veteran players.

"We play Travis Kirschke, we play Nick Eason," Tomlin said.

"It is going to require more than one man to man-down Aaron's spot, which is what we dealt with when he missed a couple games earlier in the season."

Kirschke (6-3, 298) and Eason (6-3, 305) both play extensively as substitutes for Smith and Keisel.

Kirschke, 33, has been with the Steelers since 2004 when he signed as an unrestricted free agent from San Francisco. He also has played for the Detroit Lions, who first signed him as an undrafted rookie in 1997.

Eason, 27, signed with the Steelers this year as an unrestricted free agent from the Cleveland Browns. Denver drafted him in the fourth round in 2003 and waived him in '04. He signed with the Browns in '04 and played for them mostly as a backup the next three seasons.

"The standard of expectation is not going to change," Tomlin said. "Those guys are quality players. Travis has played a long time in this league at a high level and he has starting experience. Nick is a guy that has been an emotional spark plug for us. He is a guy that comes to work every day.

"I am excited about seeing what those guys are capable of doing for us, but at the same time saddened for Aaron on a personal note, because he is a quality person, a quality player and he loves to play the game. It is something we will have to deal with."

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

Monday, December 10, 2007

Perfect answer for Smith

By Jackie MacMullan
Boston Globe
December 10, 2007



Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss (81) hauls in his second touchdown pass of the game on a long bomb from Tom Brady in the second quarter.
(Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)


FOXBOROUGH - Long after a future Hall of Fame quarterback undressed him in front of a national audience, with touchdown bombs over his head and verbal bombs inches from his face, long after a raucous hometown Patriots crowd mocked him with a derisive cheer that sounded a bit like M-V-P, but upon further review was actually "Guar-an-tee," young Pittsburgh safety Anthony Smith stood at his stall in the hush of the muted Steelers locker room yesterday and was offered a chance to rewrite history.

Smith is the second-year player who boldly - and foolishly - guaranteed the Steelers would win yesterday's game against New England.

"Anthony," I asked him, just minutes after New England shredded his team, 34-13, by scorching the secondary for 399 passing yards and four touchdowns, "If you could do it over, would you guarantee the win again?"

"Yes," he answered. "I come out every game to win. In this league, if you walk into an arena planning to lose, you're not a guy anyone will want to play with."

In theory, he is correct. But Smith not only heaped undue pressure on himself with his misplaced arrogance, he also juiced a weary Patriots team that had played three consecutive night games (including a Monday Night Football tilt last week that meant one less day to prepare for the Steelers), and was, quite frankly, looking a bit vulnerable in the wake of tight wins over Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Yet nobody can match New England's ability to take the slightest perceived disrespect and transform it into a major - and personal - injustice. The Patriots relied on this tactic in Super Bowl XXXIX when loudmouth receiver Freddie Mitchell belittled their secondary. They worked themselves into a lather during last season's playoffs when San Diego star Shawne Merriman predicted the Chargers would face the Jets, because they would beat the Patriots.

The latest victim of their motivational frenzy is Smith, the former Syracuse star whose aggressive defensive style was expertly exploited by the Patriots.

"We knew he plays that way, so we put some stuff to take advantage of that," said receiver Jabar Gaffney (seven catches, 122 yards).

"Lesson learned," said Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "A hard lesson learned."

Hobbs is also a young, confident player who isn't afraid to speak his mind or flaunt his abilities, yet he refused to be lumped in the company of Smith.

"I've said some things I've regretted," Hobbs said, "but nothing to that degree. Nothing where I've gotten the whole East Coast ready for you, saying, 'Come on over here so we can slap you around.'

"There's nothing wrong with confidence. You've got to have a little swagger on the field. But there's a fine line, and he crossed it."

Smith remained unrepentant after the game, even suggesting he - and his team - would see the Patriots again. Ike Taylor downplayed the effect of Smith's words, insisting, "This wasn't about him. If you're not already motivated to play in the NFL, then something's not right."

There's no doubt the Patriots targeted Smith yesterday. He was covering Randy Moss when Brady found him in the back of the end zone for the first touchdown of the day. As the quarterback ran to congratulate his receiver, he turned and delivered some choice words to the safety. Brady was so far into Smith's grill, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison felt the need to intervene. While Smith professed not to know what venom Brady spewed in his direction - "If he said something I wasn't paying attention to him," he insisted - the face of the Patriots franchise admitted his words were unprintable.

"I don't care to repeat them, especially if my mother reads it," Brady said. "She wouldn't be very happy with what I said."

Brady exploited Smith again on the very next offensive series. He faked the handoff to Laurence Maroney and watched with glee as the safety came up to help stop the run, then got burned on Brady's 63-yard bomb to Moss. Asked if he intentionally called a play to embarrass the kid, Brady answered, "No, he just ended up being in the right place at the right time."

And then he burst out laughing.

There were yuks all around at Smith's expense. Even coach Bill Belichick, who never will be mistaken for Chuckles the Clown in his postgame news conference, joined in. When asked if he used Smith's guarantee to rally his team, Belichick deflected the question to comments made by Rodney Harrison earlier in the week. Under normal circumstances, the coach would have immediately reverted to his usual Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, but he couldn't resist.

"We've played a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you that," he said.

Smith, by most accounts, is a talented young kid who got carried away (he also suggested last night his quotes were taken out of context). Unlike Mitchell, the former first-round bust who professed not to know the names of any of the Patriots players in the secondary, then was limited to one catch for 11 yards in the Eagles' Super Bowl loss, Smith has a future in the league.

"He's going to be a good player," said Rodney Harrison. "He's young, and he'll learn from his mistakes. This is a humbling league. I've been humbled 100 times. You've got to take it as it comes. You've got to treat everyone with class, regardless of the outcome."

It's interesting to revisit the comments from New England earlier in the week, when most of the Patriots professed indifference over Smith's comments. Now we know better. He ticked this team off, and it was hell bent on making him pay. Brady's verbal assault was accompanied by some choice words from Moss as well.

In addition to his guarantee, Smith dismissed the Patriots' receiving corps, sniffing, "They've got [Wes] Welker and Moss, but they're not like Cincinnati."

Well, Anthony, at least you got one thing right. The Patriots truly are not the Bengals. They don't have eight losses, and they don't have receivers who go into histrionics in the end zone or race thoroughbreds in their spare time.

What they did have yesterday was seven different guys who caught passes, and two (Gaffney and Moss, who hauled in seven balls for 135 yards and 2 TDs) who surpassed 100 yards.

Were Smith and his ill-advised declaration a factor in their prolific output? Yes. But was he the factor? Hardly.

"You know how when you go to a pizza shop and you say, 'I want extra sausage?' " Harrison said, grinning. "There's nothing wrong with extra sausage."

Sure tastes better than humble pie.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

Potential rematch the least of Steelers' concerns

By Mike Prisuta
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, December 10, 2007



FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 9: Junior Seau #55 of the New England Patriots keeps his eyes on Hines Ward #86 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium December 9, 2007 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots won 34-13. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The second-worst part about Patriots 34, Steelers 13 is it could have been worse (Randy Moss dropped a touchdown pass and Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal).

The worst part, from the Steelers' perspective, is it's painfully obvious this morning that this is not 2005 and the Patriots are not the Colts.

The Steelers ventured into Indy in late November 2005 and were beaten, 26-7, but came away with a feeling they'd be able to handle Peyton Manning and the crowd noise and give a much better accounting of themselves should they be fortunate enough to play the Colts again.

The rest, particularly their 21-18 playoff triumph in Indianapolis in January 2006, is Super Bowl history.

This time around it's the Patriots who are in the process of making history.
And after becoming a footnote to history by becoming the 13th consecutive victim on what appears to be a relentless march toward 16-0, the Steelers had much more to digest than what might happen if they get another chance at the Pats.

"That's a good, heartfelt story to go back to something that happened in the past that we pulled off, but in all honesty that doesn't mean anything to this team," Steelers guard Alan Faneca said. "We come back here, we still have to go out there and play football and try to win the game; it's not just a given."

It's anything but because the Patriots are not the Colts of 2005 and the Steelers are not the Steelers of 2005.

The Steelers could run the ball then.

They no longer can.

Not when it matters.



The Patriots defense stopped Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward (86) short of the goal line on this fourth-down attempt.
(Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)


They put their fall from grace on the ground on film at the outset of the fourth quarter, when, trailing 31-13 but a mere 1 yard away from threatening to make a game of it again, the Steelers tried a pass and a gadget play to get the TD they desperately needed.

In their defense, they had intended to run it up the gut on third-and-goal from the New England 1-yard line, but the offense sensed a bunching Patriots defense was all over that and sight-adjusted to a fade to wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

Veteran safety Rodney Harrison was all over that, as well, which left the Steelers confronting fourth-and-goal from the 1.

They came up with an empty-backfield set and opted for a sweep to motioning wide receiver Hines Ward.

Tackle Willie Colon got blown up.

Ward got blown up.

And the Steelers' reputation as a team to be feared on the ground was likewise blasted into oblivion.

Forget Willie Parker's standing among his fellow rushers or the Steelers' ranking in rushing offense.

Those statistics mean nothing after such a development.

The Steelers don't have a back or a play they can count on when they have to have a yard at crunch time.

A touchdown there would have only delayed the inevitable, but at least the Steelers could have emerged feeling a little bit better about themselves and their game.

Instead, they exited having exposed a problem that must be solved before they can begin to think seriously about winning a playoff game, let alone writing a different script in a New England rematch.


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

Another sackless performance for Blitzburgh

Monday, December 10, 2007
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 9: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots throws during a game with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium December 9, 2007 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots won 34-13. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- All kinds of nice round numbers have surfaced in the mountain of evidence that the New England Patriots are allegedly the best football team in the world, with the discovery yesterday by the Steelers being especially thick with them -- Bill Belichick's 100th Patriots win, Tom Brady's 4,000 passing yards, New England's total eclipse of the 500-point planet in this pluperfect season.

But this game's biggest number was the smallest, and the roundest:

0.

As in sacks by the Steelers.

Brady was back to pass 46 times, and 46 times, pass he did, which is why New England is 13-0 this morning and the Steelers are, to quote Mike Tomlin on the occasion of the worst defensive performance of his initial NFL season, "not close."

Anyone remember Blitzburgh?

The Steelers have one sack on the previous 90 opposition pass plays, which is no way to polish a reputation as a pressure defense, but it is the worst conceivable failing when you have to line up against Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, et al.

"He got rid of it real quick," said linebacker Larry Foote of a game in which Brady rang up 18 passing first downs and 399 air yards. "He was guessing right on us all night. He was really on top of his game."

Of course, there was no particular reason why he had to be, because the Steelers were not making him even moderately uncomfortable. Not only did they fail to sack him once, but on one play, they actually let him throw it twice.

That came on New England's first possession of the third quarter, when Brady whipped one to Moss in the right flat, where the brilliant wideout was positioned far enough behind Brady that when he dropped it, it was a fumble. Moss picked it up and flung it back to Brady, now positioned behind Moss, and Brady threw it again, this time 56 yards to Gaffney in the Steelers end zone.

Safety Anthony Smith, badly fooled on the play initially, recovered beautifully and caught up to Gaffney just as Brady's missile arrived. In other words, Smith was just in time to pretty much guarantee that Gaffney would catch it for the touchdown that made it 24-13.

"We were out of position," Tomlin said of that one. "We thought we were closing, but we didn't make the play."

That's about as close as Tomlin comes to pointing fingers in public, but Smith isn't the most pressing of the head coach's defensive problems. The Steelers have been stone sackless twice in the past five games, and managed only one in a third.

"Sometimes we got to them," Tomlin said, "and sometimes we didn't."

That's right, except for the first part.

When James Harrison purposely bumped into Brady from behind while Brady was jawing with Smith after the first of four New England touchdown passes, it was about as hard as anyone in white hit No. 12 the mere 25 minutes he was in the game.

At halftime, the Steelers offense had been on the field for 19 of the first 30 minutes, a major accomplishment in the so-called blueprint for beating New England. With the exception of a blown coverage by Smith and Ike Taylor on Moss's 63-yard touchdown, the Steelers played a clinical first half and trailed by only four at the break.

But had the Steelers known there were another 30 sack-free minutes ahead, they could have stayed in the locker room and saved themselves some embarrassment.

"He was good at reading our defense," linebacker James Farrior said. "Our disguises weren't good enough today."

Even operating from a backfield that was often empty but for himself, Brady was rarely even threatened. Brett Keisel tipped one of his passes, but not because he was particularly close.

"We were just not there," Keisel said. "It wasn't meant to be. He was nickel and diming us, forcing us to make tackles, and we didn't make enough of them. He was running a lot of shotgun. He'd get the ball, take one step, and throw. He took us up-front people completely out of the game."

New England ran 55 offensive plays that averaged 7.7 yards, and would have put up 41 points on the league's top-rated defense had Moss not dropped one in the end zone and Stephen Gostkowski not missed a field goal on another possession.

"We worked too hard, worked too hard for this to happen to us," said safety Tyrone Carter, who started his third consecutive game for Troy Polamalu. "You can't make mistakes at the back end of the coverage like we did today and expect to beat this team. That's what's been happening to teams all year against them. They blow a coverage, give up the big play, then they're behind and they can't stay with the game plan.

"It's hard with Brady. He'll be doing things on long counts and a couple of times, I was holding my disguise, holding my disguise, then he'd yell hike. You can't tip your hand too early with him."

But you can tackle him. It is legal.

You would never know it from this performance.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on December 10, 2007 at 12:00 am

'Guarantee' turns from confident to laughable

Monday, December 10, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 9: Randy Moss #81 of the New England Patriots reacts as he walks by Anthony Smith #27 of the Pittsburgh Steelers after a penalty was called in the third quarter at Gillette Stadium December 9, 2007 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots won 34-13. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It would be completely inaccurate to say the Steelers' secondary didn't have a prayer against Tom Brady, Randy Moss and the New England Patriots yesterday.

Right after Moss made toast of cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Anthony Smith to pull in a 63-yard touchdown pass from Brady in the second quarter and only a moment or two after Brady got in Smith's face to remind him that you have to be awfully young and awfully dumb to wave a red cape in front of a proud and ultra-talented opponent, the Steelers' defensive backs got down on their hands and knees in a circle on the sideline, asking for a little divine intervention.

Obviously, it didn't work.

Hence the chants of "Guarantee!" in the final moments from a thrilled Gillette Stadium crowd that watched their unbeaten heroes take another step toward NFL history with a ridiculously easy 34-13 victory against the Steelers to go to 13-0. They were directed, of course, at Smith, the second-year safety who was all over the national sports news last week with his silly, sorry guarantee that the Steelers would win.

"If you talk that [stuff], you've got to back it up," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said.

Smith didn't.

The Patriots were only too glad to remind him of it during and after the game.

There was the great Brady, taking time out from making another statement that he's the best quarterback of all time, searching out Smith on the field after Smith and Taylor bit on a play fake and allowed Moss to streak by for the long touchdown that gave the Patriots a 14-3 lead. Asked what he said to Smith, Brady laughed and said, "I don't care to repeat it, especially if my mother reads it. She wouldn't be very happy with what I said."

Teammate James Harrison rushed to Smith's defense, giving Brady a little love tap to get him away from Smith. But there was no saving Smith from ridicule in the Patriots' locker room after the game.

Even New England's staid coach, Bill Belichick, couldn't help getting in on the fun at Smith's expense. "We've played against a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you." Ouch.

But there was more from Belichick when he was asked about a 56-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jabar Gaffney in the third quarter. On the play, Brady lateraled to Moss, who threw back across the field to Brady, who found Gaffney all alone behind, yep, you know who.

"Well, again, the safety play at that position was pretty inviting," Belichick said.

Talk about piling on.

Smith had it coming, the Patriots said.

"There's nothing wrong with confidence, don't get me wrong," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "You have to have a swagger out on the field. But there's a fine line and he definitely crossed it. He was definitely knocked down when he crossed it today."

Smith, for his part, tried to shrug off the abuse, expressing regret only for making mistakes and giving up the two big plays. He even talked bravely of getting another shot at the Patriots next month. "If we do what we're supposed to do, we're going to be back."

If the Steelers do get to face the Patriots in the AFC playoffs, it's fair to assume coach Mike Tomlin will put a muzzle on Smith before the game. Tomlin clearly was irritated about that guarantee foolishness. He also couldn't have liked that Smith didn't stop there. Smith said the Cincinnati Bengals' receivers were better than the Brady Bunch -- Moss, Gaffney, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth.

"He basically called us out," Gaffney said.

Moss had seven catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Gaffney had seven for 122 and a score. Welker had nine for 78 yards and a touchdown.

"He's young. He'll learn," Gaffney said of Smith.

This loss wasn't all on Smith, of course. The Steelers' defense as a whole didn't show up. Brady wasn't sacked and threw for 399 yards and the four touchdowns, prompting his Steelers' counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger, to gush, "It truly is an honor to watch such a great quarterback play the game."

Here's the really frightening part about this game, especially if you dare to look ahead to a January rematch: The Steelers came in with a plan to take away the Brady-to-Moss connection by matching Taylor -- "our biggest guy, our fastest guy," Tomlin said -- against Moss all over the field.

That didn't work out too well.

"He's a freak of nature," Taylor said of Moss. "Once every blue moon [a player] comes out like him. His ball skills are just unbelievable, the way he locates the ball. His speed, too. They can say he's getting old, but there's nothing slow about Moss."

It was Moss who took the final shot at Smith.

Just say it was appropriate.

"They did their talking throughout the week. We did our talking on the field today."

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on December 10, 2007 at 12:00 am