Monday, December 29, 2008

Steelers back on track for 'January' football

Monday, December 29, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Steelers linebacker Andre Frazier upends Cleveland's Donte Stallworth in the first quarter.

Although the Steelers had a serious disagreement about the quality of opposition that the miserable Cleveland Browns provided yesterday at Heinz Field, they were fairly unanimous about the most important point after their ridiculously easy 31-0 victory.

"We're definitely on the right track for January football," defensive end Brett Keisel said.

There will be a home playoff game at 4:45 p.m. Jan. 11. The opponent will be the Miami Dolphins, the Indianapolis Colts or the San Diego Chargers. The opposition doesn't matter, the Steelers said. What's important is how they're playing.

"I like exactly where we are right now," linebacker James Farrior said.

"We just beat up on the Cleveland Browns," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We did what we wanted to do going into the playoffs."

"We're a very confident team," linebacker Larry Foote said. "We just went through a monstrous schedule and came out 12-4."

Ordinarily, it would be hard to imagine the Steelers heading into the postseason on a higher note. Their defense -- best in the NFL -- pitched its first shutout of the season, holding the Browns to 126 yards, including 20 passing. Their offense got Willie Parker and the running game going a bit; Parker had 116 yards on 23 carries, including a 34-yard touchdown run. The only downer was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's concussion late in the second quarter, although everyone in the locker room talked as if he will be ready for the first playoff game. "Thank goodness for the bye week," offensive tackle Max Starks said. "Two weeks is a lifetime in this business."

Still, it's awfully hard to get too excited about this win because the Browns really stink and they played as if they couldn't wait to get to the offseason. Can you blame them? Their boss, Romeo Crennel -- Dead Coach Walking -- probably will be fired today.

Here's a good nominee for the NFL season's most amazing statistic: The Browns went the final six games without scoring an offensive touchdown. Foote acknowledged it wasn't much of a challenge playing against their fourth-string quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, whose numbers -- 5 of 16 for 18 yards with 3 sacks, 2 interceptions and a microscopic 1.0 passer rating -- don't begin to reflect just how bad he was. "If you grab a guy off the street to be your quarterback, even a college defense could beat you," Foote said.


That was harder than any hit on the field, including the one that took out Big Ben.

But Parker didn't want to hear any talk about how the Browns are patsies, at least not their defense. "They're professionals just like we're professionals. It wasn't like we were playing some college team."

I'm not so sure. I'm thinking right along with Foote, I guess.

But, hey, there's no point in trying to curb Parker's enthusiasm. He's not going to give back this performance just because the Browns are lame, not after he ran for 29, 47 and 25 yards in the three previous games. His long touchdown run felt so good that he fired the football into the stands.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Santonio Holmes attempts to ward off Shantee Orr in the third quarter yesterday.

"We had the mind-set going into this game that we were going to get the running game going," Parker said. "We consider this a get-right game."

That was the best part of the game, no question.

"It was a productive effort," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I thought that we controlled the line of scrimmage."

Give Tomlin credit for the way he approached the game. He was wise to sit out team MVP James Harrison because of a minor hip problem and absolutely right to play his other starters into the fourth quarter even though the Steelers were locked into the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs a week earlier. The reward of finding his running game -- even against weak competition -- was worth the risk of injury. I'll say the same thing even if, by some chance, Roethlisberger isn't ready to go for the first game. Three weeks is just too long for the starters to sit.

"It's important to keep a little bit of an edge," defensive end Aaron Smith said.

Now it's on to the playoffs. If the Dolphins beat the Baltimore Ravens this weekend, they will be the opponent. If the Ravens win, the Steelers will play the winner of the game between the Colts and the Chargers.

It's not exactly a state secret that the Steelers' season will be measured by how they do in January and maybe even February. That 12-4 record, the No. 1-ranked defense, Harrison's team sack record, Ward's 1,000-yard receiving season ... none of it will mean much if the team doesn't get to Super Bowl XLIII.

Actually, even that might not be enough.

Said the wise Foote, "You've got to win the Super Bowl if you want to be remembered."

Don't you just love the way that man thinks?

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on December 29, 2008 at 12:00 am

Tomlin's plan doesn't include self-doubt

Monday, December 29, 2008
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger absorbs the Cleveland gang tackle led by Willie McGinest and D'Qwell Jackson that knocked him from the game.

About two hours after Ben Roethlisberger left on a motorized cart, flat on his back, totally immobilized except for a last-second raised thumb, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin walked into his postgame news conference missing not a single ounce of his typical self-assuredness.

The Steelers, apparently, had taken every precaution with their franchise quarterback in the 14 minutes he lay in the grass after Cleveland linebackers Willie McGinest and D'Qwell Jackson came down on him like a Route 28 rock slide.

Unscrewed his face mask. Strapped him to a board. Asked him some relevant questions.

Oh yes, they had taken every conceivable precaution except, of course, the main one: not playing him.

In a game with all the practical import of the Hawaii Bowl, Tomlin elected to run the varsity out there yesterday against the Cleveland Browns, whose elapsed time without an offensive touchdown is now 399 minutes, 52 seconds and counting, or if you prefer, six games.

"All tests are negative, which is positive," Tomlin instructed, overlaying some reversible prose on Big Ben's concussion, which nearly vaporized all the constructive karma the head coach energized by taking the Browns seriously. "That's all the information that I have on his status at this point. It is encouraging."

From the moment his club's slapstick performance in Nashville, Tenn., surrendered the top seed in the AFC playoffs to the Titans last week, Tomlin refused to so much as consider a more cautious approach to this walk-through with Cleveland, a 31-0 joke of a football game in which the visitors passed for 26 yards. The whole damn-the-torpedoes game plan was holding up well enough until late in the second quarter, when Roethlisberger fled the pocket to his left and flipped a 4-yard pass to Heath Miller in the split second before McGinest and Jackson put him on his back and bounced his coconut off the Heinz Field turf.

"Any time you see that gurney come out, you're worried," said wideout Nate Washington, who had a touchdown nullified by a holding penalty. "To me though, I look to Ben as a warrior. I'm hopin' and prayin' he's all right."

No one better understood the risks involved in his approach to this largely ceremonial whipping than Tomlin, whose credentials to make such judgments are perfectly in order. No one has won more games in his first two years as coach around here, and no one won divisional titles in his first two years. His decision to play Roethlisberger and mostly every other major contributor deep into this dress rehearsal was essentially correct it says here, but I know he would have preferred the risks not get such a dramatic illustration.

"There are pros and cons to both sides," nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "You don't want to rest guys for two weeks [including a first-round playoff bye next week], but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we lost last week. We made a lot of mistakes in that game, and coach wanted us to have a good game going into the playoffs."

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin watches as trainers tend to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after he was injured in the second quarter against the Browns yesterday at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger was later diagnosed with a concussion.

Generally, a good game in this town is not one that puts No. 7 in the hospital, but from every indication, Tomlin would do it all over again. As it played out, he got backup Byron Leftwich two quarters of valuable playing time on the verge of the playoffs, he rediscovered how the running game can be related to a fullback, he got his defense back to feeling like itself with its 11th performance this year in which it allowed one touchdown or none.

If all it costs the Steelers was a bill for a quick battery of CAT scans, it'll have been worth it.

"I was just hoping he was OK," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. "When we came in at halftime, coach said he was gonna be all right, and that's all I needed. Ben's a tough kid. With all the stuff he's been through the last three years, the [motorcycle] accident, I mean, it's hard to knock him out. It seems like all that stuff has only made him stronger."

Even with the quarterback on the way to the emergency room, Tomlin never came off the pedal. With 9:40 left to play and the Steelers about to go up by 31 on Ty Carter's interception return for a touchdown, Larry Foote was still in the vicious traffic along with Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley and Taylor. Tomlin finally pulled Polamalu with 8:43 to play, but Hines Ward played until he made his 800th career catch, and Miller and Santonio Holmes were still on the field, too. That was with 6:40 to play.

In two weeks, Tomlin gets his second whack at the playoffs, or what he now refers to as "January football." Here's what I know will happen: He'll run that show his way. Self-doubt is nowhere on the horizon, and coaches who come upon it don't get very far in this game.

Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283.
First published on December 29, 2008 at 12:00 am

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Chuck Noll: The invisible legend

A near-recluse in retirement, Chuck Noll brought Browns-Steelers rivalry to life

by Jodie Valade/Cleveland Plain Dealer Reporter
Saturday December 27, 2008, 11:06 PM

Scott Heckel/The Repository via AP
When the Steelers bid farewell to Three Rivers Stadium following the 2000 season, Chuck Noll was a favorite target for Pittsburgh fans eager to thank the coach for his four Super Bowl titles.

As far back as high school, Chuck Noll didn't want to let the world in. On the football field, it was one thing. Noll would be a gritty, hard-working lineman who directed his teammates with a coach's assurance even as a teenager, and he didn't mind being noticed there. Remark on his savvy play, compliment his understanding of the game, offer him a college scholarship -- all that was fine.

But off the field? The former Pittsburgh Steelers coach cherished his privacy and didn't say much, even then. Few of his classmates at Benedictine High School knew that he worked at Fisher Brothers meat market on Cedar Road after school, applying his 55 cents an hour to the $150 annual school tuition he paid himself. They didn't know his father, William, suffered from Parkinson's, and that the entire family had to help whenever the disease gripped him.

When Noll arrived at the University of Dayton to play football, hardly anyone knew that he was there entirely because Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy was afraid to let Noll play after an epileptic seizure felled him during a practice before his freshman season.

There was the time in 1979 when Steelers receiver Lynn Swann was Christmas caroling through a Pittsburgh neighborhood and reached Noll's door. The coach invited his star receiver inside, played the ukulele for him, showed him pictures of rare birds that he'd taken himself, was relaxed and casual and chatted for two hours.

As Swann walked out the door, he wondered who the man was that he'd just met.

"Chuck always seemed to have a real distance between himself and developing a real personal relationship with players," Swann said.

Chuck Noll is 76 now, and cherishes his privacy more than ever. His football days, the ones where he led the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles, are over. Debilitating back problems limit his movement, and close friends whisper of glimpses of the first stages of Alzheimer's. Some days are good. He recently played nine holes of golf near his home in Bonita Springs, Fla., with his nephew. But those days come less often than before.

"It's almost like he's disappeared," former Miami coach Don Shula said recently. "You never see him."

Associated Press file photo

Chuck Noll gave Don Shula's perfect Dolphins of 1972 a big scare in the AFC title game before Miami claimed a 21-17 victory at Three Rivers Stadium.

He was a man of few words even when he was at the top of his game, and he remains that way now that he is out of the public eye. Even so, for Clevelanders in particular, it is hard to forget Noll. He is the foremost reason the Browns-Steelers rivalry that was once so lopsided toward Cleveland became so heated and venomous. He was the one who turned around a 29-9 Browns advantage when he began coaching in Pittsburgh in 1969 to a 50-34 Cleveland edge by the time he retired in 1991.

As the Steelers now lead the series, 58-55, and have won the past 10 contests with their turnpike rival, Noll is held as another example of a homegrown product who got away from Cleveland.

Born and bred on the city's East Side, he attended Benedictine, went to college in Dayton and returned to Cleveland to play for the Browns as one of coach Paul Brown's messenger guards who rotated in on every down. He used Brown's own style against the Browns once he became head coach in Pittsburgh, combining a passion for teaching the game with his own sparse coaching style.

He never rallied his team with pep talks. He discouraged flamboyant demonstrations on the field. He never even spoke of any special venom for Cleveland when coaching Pittsburgh. Noll is a private man, a man of few words who chooses what to say when with great care, but whose impact still reverberates.

The Steelers of the 1970s, the Steel Curtain crew that dominated opponents with its stifling defense, was a direct reflection of Noll's personality. Stingy, demanding and hard-working, they exemplified traits Noll learned growing up in a house near Cleveland's E. 74th Street. Noll lived in the same house where his mother grew up with her 12 siblings. His father was a butcher, his mother worked for a florist. He was the youngest of three siblings by eight years, which at times made him feel like an only child.

"We never had much, but we always thought we didn't have to have those things," said his sister, Rita Deininger, who now lives in Bedford. "We had one another, and that is what really made us a good family."

Chuck Noll dreamed of going to Benedictine as a child, so he started working after school in seventh grade and saved enough money so that he had two years of tuition by the time he began high school. He was made a lineman when he had trouble holding onto the football as a fullback, and his tenacious play helped Benedictine earn an undefeated season in 1948, its first.

Education was the highest priority, however, as he graduated 28th in a class of 252 -- and he began working on the teaching side during his early years on the football team.

Once, when Benedictine was playing Holy Name and had the team pinned back on its 10-yard line to punt, Noll rushed over to his center, Ray Gembarski. Noll had a brainstorm to pull one teammate off the line, and have Gembarski rush in and block the punt.

"And by God, it happened," Gembarski said. "I blocked the punt.

"He was competitive all the time -- that's what I mean when I talk about him trying to coach out there. He knew what he was doing."

He was such a natural teacher that he was still instructing when he began playing at Dayton after his Notre Dame dream fell through. Though he was a late addition to the Flyers team, he took charge from the start.

"He was really into coaching in that he would tell you something and you'd say, 'That's not the way it is, Chuck,'" said Len Kestner, Noll's Dayton roommate. "And he'd say, 'Yes, that's the way it is.'"

That's how he earned the nickname "The Pope" -- for his unbending belief that his philosophy of football was always correct.

"I used to say, 'What the hell, are you infallible?'" Kestner said. "But he was very firm in his convictions. He was a very humble person, but very strong in his convictions."

Paul Brown liked what he saw in Noll, drafted him to be one of his guards in 1953, and Noll's football education accelerated. Brown believed in the art of teaching the game, and Noll was an eager student.

Associated Press file photo

Chuck Noll maintained a stoic appearance on the sidelines, and in the locker room for his Steelers players.

"He grew up like I did under the Paul Brown School of Football," said Shula, the Grand River native who played for the Browns from 1951-53. "That was Paul Brown's main attribute -- he, too, was like a classroom teacher. Chuck followed that."

He was an actual teacher, too, to supplement his income. Because Noll's football contract paid only $5,000 annually, he worked as a teacher at Holy Name, and sold insurance on the side.

By 1959, Noll had lost his job with the Browns to John Wooten, and realized his future would be in continuing his teaching career -- in coaching.

Noll's first stop was in the American Football League, as a defensive line coach for the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers. In six years with the Chargers, the team won five division titles and one AFL championship. He soon slid over to coach the linebackers and secondary, and the Chargers led the AFL in pass defense each of his last three seasons.

He joined the Baltimore Colts in 1966 working under Shula on a staff where four of the five assistants later became NFL head coaches, along with Bill Arnsparger, Don McCafferty and John Sandusky. Again in charge of defense, Noll's coaching philosophy began to solidify. The 1968 team set an NFL record for fewest points allowed with 144.

"Chuck was just a natural teacher," Shula said. "He explained how to do things and wrote up the techniques. He was one of the first coaches I was around that wrote up in great detail all of the techniques used by players -- for example, the backpedal and the defensive back's position on the receiver. He was like a classroom teacher. He used a lot of those techniques as a football coach."

After three years of polishing, when Penn State coach Joe Paterno spurned the Steelers' head coaching advances, Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney liked what he saw in Noll. He liked the way Noll evaluated players and the way he showed no prejudices. And he liked how Noll was a true teacher who would succinctly break down goals and plans.

In Noll's first team meeting with the 1969 Steelers, in fact, he told players that the goal was to win the Super Bowl. A few players snickered -- the Steelers were coming off a 2-11-1 season in 1968, after all. Even so, those players weren't at training camp for much longer. "Mean" Joe Greene, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle, was in his first year in the NFL but understood what Noll was saying.

"Our goal wasn't necessarily that year or the next year or the next year," Greene said. "But the goal was to win the Super Bowl. He set it in place. The ideas and philosophy were implanted in us. ... What he was instilling in everybody there was the mind-set and the belief in what we were doing, and the belief in one another."

From that day on, Noll built the Steelers in his image -- gritty, tough and focused. After Pittsburgh went 1-13 his first year, they improved each of the next three, finishing 11-3 in 1972. He melded Greene with quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Swann and running back Franco Harris, sewing together a team that would send nine players and Noll to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It was a conglomeration of fiercely individual personalities -- he battled with Bradshaw through the years -- but Greene said Noll had a gift of allowing players to be themselves within the team system. Only when behavior became detrimental to the team did Noll say something.

Greene earned his "Mean" nickname for his growling anger and temper. Once, after Greene erupted at a referee, Noll finally approached his star defensive tackle.

"You know, Joe," Noll said, "those officials are people, too. They don't like being talked to that way."

"He just said it very matter-of-factly," Greene said. "And from that day on, I changed how I responded to those guys. It was something about Chuck and the way he goes about his words."

Noll was so determined to stay out of the spotlight that in his 23 years in Pittsburgh, he agreed to just one endorsement deal -- as a favor to a friend for Pittsburgh National Bank. Noll didn't realize his mug would be plastered on billboards all over town, and he grimaced each time he drove by one. He didn't have a TV show or radio show, didn't write books.

"It's just my nature," he once told Sports Illustrated. "I've always been that way. I've always avoided publicity. I've never been good copy at any stage of my life. I don't strive for it, because I don't think it's important whether I'm good copy or not. The two can go together, if that's your personality, but every person on this earth is unique. I've never tried to pattern myself after anybody. You have to be what you are, and this is what I am."

A man of few words is never a good quality for reporters. At one Steelers' Super Bowl appearance, someone reportedly posted a note in the press box bulletin board that said: "Highlights of Chuck Noll's Press Conference." A large white space sat underneath.

Media vote for the NFL coach of the year, which might explain why Noll never received the award until 1989. He didn't get it once over the span of 1974 to 1979, when the Steelers won four Super Bowls.

"That's a crock," Swann said. "I think that was one of the worst disgraces by those who voted for the award throughout the '70s."

But that was Noll's choice. Occasionally, he would show glimpses of his world -- he loved fine wine, flew planes, enjoyed boating, loved photography and taught his nephews about the beauty of nature and rare birds. Occasionally, but not often.

"I lived a block away from him, literally, for six years of my career," said former Steelers safety Mike Wagner. "He didn't say, 'Hey, come on over anytime you have questions.' He kept his social life private and his interests to himself."

His fingerprints are still all over this Steelers-Browns rivalry, with a 25-22 record against Cleveland -- though he never felt any extra incentive to top his hometown team. Greg Rufus, the son of Noll's Benedictine coach, Joe, said Noll once showed up at a Cleveland hospital to visit his dad unannounced -- the morning of the Browns-Steelers game.

"Chuck, what are you doing here?" a flabbergasted Joe Rufus asked.

"Joe, you coach during the week," Noll said. "There's nothing I could do on a Sunday morning that's going to make my team win. My team learns to win Thursday through Saturday."

For Noll, football and life rarely intersected. He was passionate about the game during the week and on the field, but just as vehement about keeping his private life out of view.

So no matter what anyone says, this Browns-Steelers game didn't incite extra emotion from Noll, didn't cause him to plead with his players to win one for him because the city and the team once meant so much to him.

And his players never wanted to see that.

"Then I couldn't tell you what I'm telling you about Chuck," Greene said. "That wouldn't have been him. In my view, it would have devalued him. He still would have been Chuck, but that wouldn't have been him if he'd shown those kinds of emotions. Chuck was special."

Even if not many have ever been able to see it.

Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll


Age: 76

Hometown: Cleveland

High school: Benedictine

College: University of Dayton

Professional career: Played guard for Cleveland Browns 1953-59.

Coaching career: L.A./San Diego Chargers, assistant coach, defense (1960-65); 1966-68 -- Baltimore Colts, assistant defensive backs coach (1966-69); Pittsburgh Steelers head coach (1969-91).

Accomplishments: Won four Super Bowls with Steelers, 1975, '76, '79 and '80. Was 209-156-1 all-time with the Steelers. Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Named NFL Coach of the Year in 1989. Was 25-21 against the Browns.

Don't blame Arians for Steelers' poor offense

By Mike Bires, Beaver County Times Sports Staff
Published: Saturday, December 27, 2008 12:11 AM EST

You know it’s a meaningless football week in Pittsburgh when the media has to debate Bruce Arians’ future.

Since there’s nothing compelling about the hapless Browns coming to town to close out the regular season, the fate of the Steelers’ offensive coordinator has been a hot topic.

Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Arians

It started Tuesday at the Mike Tomlin press conference when Tomlin was asked if he stands by his O.C.

“I won’t even dignify that with an answer,” Tomlin snapped.

Good for you, Mike.

Barring a miracle, the Steelers will win their 12th game Sunday. They have already wrapped up the AFC’s No. 2 seed in the upcoming playoffs. And someone asks if the coach stands by his offensive coordinator?

The Steelers may rank 23rd in the NFL in total offense, but that has little to do with Arians managing the Steelers’ offense.

The subject didn’t go away. On Friday during a radio interview on ESPN 1250, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said that Tomlin should fire Arians once this season ends.

I find it hard to believe that a guy who supposedly knows talent and watches tons of videotape actually believes Arians is the cause of the Steelers’ offensive problems.

Granted, I’m not keen on the Tomlin/Arians approach that’s phasing out the fullback. But look around the league. Many teams are doing that, including Indianapolis and New England.

I can list several reasons why the Steelers are sputtering on offense. But here’s the top three:

l The offensive line: This is not breaking news, folks. We knew before the season started that the O-line wasn’t very good, and nothing has changed. In fact, when you consider that guard Kendall Simmons and tackle Marvel Smith have missed most of the season with injuries, the situation up front is worse than expected.

Not all of the 46 sacks of Ben Roethlisberger can be attributed to the O-line. But most are.

l Sloppy performances: How many passes has Santonio Holmes dropped this year? How many passes has Nate Washington dropped? How many times have wide receivers failed to get open? And how about Roethlisberger’s red-zone fumble last week in the first quarter in Tennessee? Was that Arians’ fault?

l The other team’s defense: If the Steelers’ top-ranked defense deserves praise for the way it shuts down opposing offense, other teams playing stingy defense deserve credit, too. Of the defenses that rank 2 through 12, the Steelers have played nine of them.

The bottom line is that Arians is calling plays just the way he did last year. But how quickly people forget.

Last year in Arians’ first season as offensive coordinator, running back Willie Parker led the league in rushing before breaking his leg in late December. Roethlisberger set franchise records with 32 TD passes and a 104.1 passer rating. The Steelers ranked third in rushing and tied for ninth in scoring.

No one complained about Arians then. Nor should they now.

Steelers' season has plenty of ups, downs

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers aren't looking past the Browns to the upcoming NFL playoffs.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is approaching today's regular-season finale against the Browns as if it is anything but an exhibition contest.

All of the key starters that are healthy will play in the 1 p.m. game at Heinz Field as the Steelers try to finish on a winning note and take momentum into the playoffs.

The Steelers have already wrapped up the AFC North title as well as the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. If that doesn't diminish the importance of today's game for the Steelers it almost certainly does for the fans.

With the Steelers (11-4) looking ahead to the playoffs after today, here is a look back at the season and how it has unfolded.

Offensive MVP: Hines Ward

So much for talk that Santonio Holmes would supplant Ward as the No. 1 option in the passing game. The 10th-year veteran is closing in on his first 1,000-yard receiving season — he has 973 — since 2004 and few if any receivers in the NFL work the middle of the field better than Ward.

He is also without peer as a blocker as Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers, among others, can attest.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger merits consideration but he has been too turnover-prone in Steelers losses this season, and his touchdown to interception ratio is a pedestrian 17/14.

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 21: Hines Ward #86 of the Pittsburgh Steelers smiles after catching a pass against the Tennessee Titans during their game on December 21, 2008 at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Defensive MVP: James Harrison

The former undrafted free agent has already set a Steelers single-season with 16 sacks, eclipsing the mark Mike Merriweather set in 1984. Harrison has also forced seven fumbles, and he kept the Steelers in the Chargers game last month with a sack that resulted in a safety and an interception return that set up a field goal.

Harrison, who was named the Steelers' MVP last week, plays special teams and there is not much he does not do well this side of long snapping. He has been the best player on the No. 1 defense in the NFL.

Unsung player: Mewelde Moore

His signing last March slipped under the radar but Moore has been one of the top free agent acquisitions in the NFL. He kept the running game afloat when starting running back Willie Parker was sidelined with knee and shoulder injuries, and he has arguably been more effective in the Steelers' offense than Parker.

Moore is averaging 4.2 yards per carry — the Steelers are averaging 3.6 yards per carry — and his six touchdowns are second only to Ward.

Special-teams aces Anthony Madison and Keyaron Fox also warrant mention as they have stabilized the kick coverage units that were veritable disasters last season.

Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison has forced seven fumbles this season.
Tom Croke/Icon SMI

Biggest win: Steelers 13, Ravens 9

The Steelers had not beaten the Ravens on the road since 2002. They looked like they were headed to another loss in Baltimore two weeks ago when Roethlisberger and the offense trotted onto the field with three minutes and 36 seconds left in the game.

Twelve plays and 92 yards later the Steelers had scored the only touchdown in the hard-hitting game, and they needed less than three minutes to essentially go the length of the field against a defense that is widely considered on par with their own.

The win clinched the AFC North title for the Steelers and assured them of at least the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs as well as a first-round bye. It also marked the third time during a five-week span that the Steelers had rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit.

Worst loss: Titans 31, Steelers 14

A Roethlisberger fumble on the Titans' 1-yard line in the first quarter portended the kind of game it would be for the Steelers with pole position in the AFC playoffs on the line.

Roethlisberger committed four turnovers, overshadowing the season-high 331 passing yards he produced. The defense looked surprisingly vulnerable as the Steelers lost for the eighth time in nine road games against the Titans.

Several Titans players stomped on a Terrible Towel near the end of Tennessee's win but that did not bother the Steelers nearly as much as the way they played in the game between the AFC's top two teams.

They could get a chance to redeem themselves.

Wins by the Steelers and Titans in the second round of the playoffs — both teams have first-round byes — sets up a rematch at LP Field in the AFC Championship game.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hands off to running back Mewelde Moore during the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M & T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland on December 14, 2008. The Steelers defeated the Ravens 13-9. (UPI Photo/Kevin Dietsch)

Most pleasant surprise: Depth

The Steelers have bought into Tomlin's concept that players fall into two categories: starters and starters in waiting. And the supporting cast has loomed as large as the stars in the Steelers successfully navigating the toughest schedule in the NFL.

What is remarkable about the Steelers' ability to weather a rash of injuries is they have gotten virtually nothing from their 2008 draft class.

First-round pick Rashard Mendenhall went down in September with a season-ending shoulder injury and second-round pick Limas Sweed has caught six passes for 64 yards. Third-round pick Bruce Davis has played in five games and his next tackle will be his first one while fourth-round pick Tony Hills has yet to suit up for a game.

Biggest disappointment: Running game

The Steelers are 24th in the NFL in rushing (100.9 yards per game) and they haven't been able to establish any consistency or an identity in this phase of the game.

Their ground game hasn't been in this much disrepair since 2003 — the Steelers averaged less than 100 rushing yards per game — and there are plenty of reasons why.

The offensive line has been anything but overpowering, Parker has been plagued by injuries and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians seems to have an aversion to using a fullback.

The timing of Parker's recent criticism of the approach the Steelers have taken to running the ball was off but his point may well have been on the mark.

Biggest play: Cornerback Deshea Townsend's interception return for a touchdown

The one-handed scoop of an interception Troy Polamalu made against the San Diego Chargers is one of the plays of the year in the NFL.

The only think it lacked was the impact of Townsend's 25-yard interception return against the Dallas Cowboys.

Townsend's touchdown capped the Steelers' comeback from a 13-3 fourth-quarter deficit. It was set up by the enormous faith Tomlin has in his defense.

After the Steelers tied the game at 13-13 late in the fourth quarter, they used a timeout on the Cowboys' ensuing possession to preserve time on the clock.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo didn't hide his surprise at the Steelers' strategy. He didn't do any better disguising his intentions on the next play as he threw a pass right to Townsend, whose interception and return delivered the most improbable victory of the season.

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend (26) intercepts a Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo pass and runs 25 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Steelers 20-13 win at Heinz Field on December 7, 2008 in Pittsburgh PA. (UPI Photo/Archie Carpenter)


"It's just loses so much of its essence when it becomes like a pansy game. When you see guys like Dick Butkus and these really raw, old-school, pound-it-out type of players, they could never survive in a game like this. They wouldn't have enough money. They'd be paying fines all the time and they'd be suspended for a year after they do it two games in a row. It's kind of ridiculous." — Strong safety Troy Polamalu on the NFL levying fines in the name of player safety.

"The issue for us has been, is and hopefully will continue to be winning. That's my interpretation of Steelers football. Every morning I came to work I walk past five Lombardis (trophies), not five rushing titles." — Coach Mike Tomlin in response to comments by Parker about the Steelers' approach to running the football.

By the numbers

Here is a look at the season the Steelers have had with only game left in it.

1 — Steelers' NFL rank in passing defense and total defense.

2 — 100-yard rushing games by running back Willie Parker this season.

3 — Steelers that made the Pro Bowl.

4 — Misses by kicker Jeff Reed in 30 field-goal attempts.

5 — Games that the Steelers won this season in which they either trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter.

6 — Games in which outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley each had at least one sack.

7 — Combined interceptions quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown in both of the Steelers' losses at Heinz Field.

8 — Games (out of nine) the Steelers have won in which they have scored at least 20 points.

9 — Sacks the Steelers gave up in a 15-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

10 — Steelers that have at least 50 tackles this season.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hines Ward nears his fifth 1,000-yard season

Saturday, December 27, 2008
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Hines Ward, shown here against the Ravens, needs 27 more receiving yards tomorrow against the Browns to reach his fifth 1,000-yard season.

Ask Hines Ward what has been the key to 11 seasons of accomplishments, and he'll turn the question the way he turns defenders.

"You guys are the key," Ward said during a media scrum this week. "I love it when you write about what I can't do."

Most receivers prefer to run and catch without carrying extra baggage around, but Ward seems to play his best when he has that chip on his shoulder. It's uncertain who, if anybody, wrote that Ward wouldn't be on the doorstep of another 1,000-yard season going into the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns tomorrow. No matter. The former Super Bowl MVP plays his best when everything is on the line.

A favorite on YouTube for his devastating blocks, and the target of bounty hunters by opposing defenders, Ward previously has reached the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards four times from 2001-04, with each of the those seasons punctuated by a Pro Bowl selection. No other receiver in franchise history -- and it's a history that includes some Hall of Famers -- had four such seasons.

At 32, he is 27 yards shy of reaching 1,000 again. And even if he says all the right things about team goals, the milestone is meaningful.

"It would be a great accomplishment. I don't think I have to prove anything to my teammates by getting 1,000 yards, but it'd be great to have," said Ward, who has caught at least one pass in 161 consecutive games.

He is the franchise leader in 12 categories, including career catches, most receiving yards, most receiving touchdowns and receptions in a single season. He is six catches short of 800 in his career, which is some 250 more than John Stallworth had. He also is tied with Louis Lipps and Buddy Dial for most touchdown catches in a season (12, in 2002).

By his own admission, Ward is not a typical wide receiver.

"I'm not 6-foot-3. I don't have blazing speed. But I find ways to be the best player I can be," Ward said. "To play this long in the league, you have to be consistent. Consistency is the measuring stick. I'll keep showing up and keep making plays to get this team to the Super Bowl."

And in the words of coach Mike Tomlin, "He's a football player, a wide receiver second."

When it comes to running with the ball or taking a hit to make a play or throwing a jarring block, Ward can irritate defenders no end. But it's hard to tell what's more annoying -- his accomplishments or his radiant smile.

One of his nicknames is Psycho Ward. But he's also known as Hines Field for his accomplishments at home. He opened the season by grabbing two touchdown passes against the Houston Texans.

The game against the Browns has no meaning as far as the standings or the playoff seeds are concerned. But Ward has found motivation beyond his personal goals.

"This is one game they would love to win," Ward said.

"For us, we trying to gain momentum going into the playoffs. This is our last preparation. Last year, we limped into the playoffs. You can't just turn it on and off. If you're not playing good heading into the playoffs, it takes a miracle for you to have a good playoff run."

And there's another little chip on the shoulder -- wanting to erase the aftereffects of the loss last week in Tennessee.

"We don't want to go into the playoffs with that game on our minds still," Ward said. "We don't want that taste in our mouths."


• Game: Steelers (11-4) vs. Browns (4-11), 1 p.m.

• Where: Heinz Field


Robert Dvorchak can be reached at
First published on December 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Polamalu considers himself doubly blessed

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Steelers' strong safety Troy Polamalu is spending his first Christmas with his first-born son, Paisios.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review file

The aches and pains that accompany every Steelers game have never felt more real to Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu since the birth of his son.

"Sometimes it's hard to carry him around in the middle of the night, because you're so sore and beat up," Polamalu said regarding his first child, Paisios, who was born Oct. 31. "Your arms, your shoulders hurt, you can't hold your own child."

The first Christmas with Paisios will be a joyous one for the family's breadwinner, who is enjoying another tremendous season on the field but an even better one at home.

As a new father, Polamalu sees life differently and more clearly than he did a few months ago.

"Having a son changes the priorities in your life, obviously," said Polamalu, who said Paisios was named for a Greek Orthodox saint. "Responsibilities change, because you've got to change diapers in the middle of the night. Right now, he's still really young, but it's nice when it's the middle of the night, and he's sleeping on my chest.

"My family has always come first. My wife (Theodora) has always come first. My son is another person that I love as much as my wife."

Troy grew up in a family that always celebrated Christmas together. With one brother, three sisters and a host of cousins, there was never a shortage of family members together for the holidays. With the Steelers concluding the regular season on Sunday against Cleveland at Heinz Field, Troy will celebrate the holiday quietly with Theodora and Paisios.

"It's really exciting this time of year," he said. "All those things that put you in the mood, ornaments and trees. Now you get to re-live that through (Paisios). We've already had the most special Thanksgiving we've ever had. I anticipate this being the best Christmas.

"Once you get into high school, you kind of (lose) that zeal for Christmas you had when you were a child. It's a really cool tradition when the family gets together -- grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren. God willing, one day I'll be able to be the grandparent."

Asked if he's changed since becoming a father, Polamalu said he believes he is pretty much the same person. He's still quiet and keeps to himself, even if he is a bit of a prankster, according to Steelers defensive end Nick Eason.

Troy Polamalu helps Steelers teammates James Harrison and Larry Foote stop Cowboys Deon Anderson short.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review file

"He's quiet, but once you get to know him, he talks a lot," said Eason, who got to know Polamalu away from football last season through Bible study class. "He probably ranks among the top three pranksters on the team. He's not really a vocal tell-a-joke type person, but he does a lot of things around here that people don't know he's responsible for.

"Last year was my first year here. Troy opened a Twix (candy bar), ate the caramel off the top and put it back in the wrapper and gave it to me. I was eating it and thought it was a new kind of Twix. Once that happened, I said, 'Oh, man, this kid ain't quiet at all.'"

Eason joined safety Ryan Clark, tight end Heath Miller and practice-team member Roy Lewis among a select group of teammates who attended Paisios' baptism on Dec. 16.

"It was an honor for me to be invited, and something I'll always remember," Eason said.

Clark said he has seen one major change in Polamalu.

"The biggest thing you can see is he can't wait to get home," Clark said. "He has his wife there and his son. I'm happy for him."

Polamalu, 27, said the Steelers have always felt like an extended family to him.

"The personality of our defense is how well we get along," he said. "It's just a product of what you see on the field. We love each other authentically. We play for each other. We love our coach (defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau). We play for our coach. We play close defense.

"There's something different about playing here. They really provide a nice, family atmosphere. There's not too many occupations in the world where people endure what we endure. We endure injuries together, we're around each other so much. There's a lot of personal problems that we talk to each other about. That's what's beautiful about this game."

Steelers name Harrison MVP

Outside linebacker rare repeat winner after a better season than a year ago

Thursday, December 25, 2008
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

James Harrison

When Tony Dungy was asked recently to make a case for Peyton Manning as the league's most valuable player, the Indianapolis coach instead declared his vote for Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

"He's been the most dominant player on the best defense in football," Dungy said recently on Sirius NFL radio.

"He's like a Randy Moss or Dwight Freeney. You have to game-plan for him in terms of how you're going to block him in the passing game. So he puts that on the table even before the game starts, and then he does other things. He drops in pass coverage. He covers tight ends. They move him around, and he's not just a one-dimensional rusher," he added.

The league MVP has yet to be determined, but Harrison chalked up a big honor yesterday-- being voted by his teammates as the most valuable player of a division champion that is seeded No. 2 in the AFC playoffs. He also won it last year, becoming the first playing since linebacker Levon Kirkland (1998-99) to win the award outright in consecutive years. Hines Ward shared the award in 2002 and won it in '03.

"It's a tremendous honor, just like it was last year," said Harrison, who said he believed he had a better year this year than last.

And what would it mean to be named the top defensive player in the league?

"The Super Bowl would mean everything on top of all that," Harrison said.

He credited his offseason work and a better understanding of the defense with his improvement. But he was quick to credit his teammates and the mastermind of coach Dick LeBeau.

"Everything I do is because of him. If he doesn't call the defense that puts me in a position to make plays, I wouldn't be talking to you now," Harrison said.

Already selected to his second consecutive Pro Bowl, Harrison has had a monster season. Against the Titans Sunday, his sack of Kerry Collins in the third quarter gave him 16 for the season, breaking the team's single-season sack record held previously by Mike Merriweather. The NFL leader in forced fumbles with seven, he also has 100 tackles for the first time in his career. A dozen of those tackles have come on special teams, because, in addition to his other duties, Harrison still charges down the field on kicks.

Not bad for an undrafted free agent out of Kent State who was released several times and was once the property of the Baltimore Ravens in 2004. After the Ravens released him, he signed again with the Steelers when Clark Haggans was injured in training camp. Now, he is one of the most-feared linebackers in the league, and a player held in highest regard by his teammates.

"This place is rich in linebacker tradition and getting to the quarterback. A lot of great players came be fore him, and he broke a record that stood for a lot of years," said defensive end Brett Keisel.

"The man works his [tail] off every day, not only on the field but in weight room and in studying film. I just can't say enough about how much he means to this team and the kind of year he's had," he added.

Some of Harrison's biggest moments have come against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers final regular-season opponent Sunday. That become more noteworthy because he grew up in Akron.

His first career start came against Cleveland in 2004 because Joey Porter was ejected for fighting before the game. In that game, he registered his first career sack and made six tackles.

Then, in the Super Bowl season of 2005, during a 41-0 win against the Browns, he bodyslammed an inebriated Cleveland fan who made the mistake of running onto the field.

He became a starter last season after the decision was made to part ways with Porter, now with the Miami Dolphins.

NFL analyst Phil Simms is also among those who believe Harrison should get some votes for the league MVP award.

"He can do it all," Simms said. "I'll tell you what. You've got all these offensive plays designed where you're going to do this and this. Well, they all go out the window because, if you don't double-team him, if you don't make special provisions to stop him, he's going to win the game. He can beat tackles. He can beat tight ends. He can cover. He's an unbelievable tackler. He is a special player."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at
First published on December 25, 2008 at 12:00 am

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Do Steelers need to run?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sure, the Steelers' running game could miraculously spring to life in the playoffs, the way the Indianapolis Colts' pathetic run defense did two years ago.


The Colts spent 16 games establishing themselves as the NFL's worst rush defense in 45 years. They were giving up 173 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.

Titans' Nick Harper tracks down Steelers running back Willie Parker in the third quarter at LP Field on Sunday. The Steelers may not need a running game to win in the playoffs.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review

Even this year's Steelers could have run wild on that group.

But something totally unforeseen happened in the playoffs.

The Colts started stuffing people. They didn't allow 100 yards rushing in any of their three AFC playoff games. They buried Kansas City's Larry Johnson and Baltimore's Jamal Lewis.

So, yeah, the Steelers could blow our minds. They could keep the ball for 37 minutes and run for 200 yards -- especially if Willie Parker finds his burst and the right opponent winds up at Heinz Field in the divisional round.

I just wouldn't bet what's left of your 401(k) on it.

Assume the Steelers still won't be able to free Willie (or anyone else) against a good defense, and the question becomes: Can this team win the Super Bowl without a prolific running game?

The answer, unequivocally, is yes.

The New England Patriots, in their three championship seasons, had two 100-yard rushers in nine playoff games.

Last year's New York Giants averaged 103.8 yards rushing and 3.5 yards per carry in four playoff games, failing twice to reach 100 yards.

The Steelers are averaging 100.8 yards rushing and 3.6 yards per carry.

So, let's not push the myth that a big-time running game is a prerequisite to winning it all. Even the Steelers of 2005 were a pass-first, run-later team in the playoffs.

Do you need to be able to gain a yard when you need one? Absolutely. The Steelers must rectify that problem.

But the top priority is to put the superb defense in position to win the game, or least keep it close until the fourth quarter, when Ben Roethlisberger normally does his best work.

And that means protecting the football as if it were a block of gold.

Last season's Giants turned it over twice all postseason. They relied on a stout defense, solid special teams and a quarterback who made sound decisions and clutch throws.

Roethlisberger needs to remember what he said after the most impressive victory of the Bill Cowher era -- the 21-18 playoff victory three years ago at Indianapolis.

"I got some good advice the other day from (TV analyst) Dan Dierdorf," Roethlisberger said. "He said, 'Every drive that ends in a kick is a good drive.' "

Amen, and peace be to Dan Dierdorf.

If a possession ends with a punt, fine.

If it ends with a field goal, great.

Field goals get a bad name.

The Colts, during the aforementioned 2006 playoffs, won in Baltimore without scoring a touchdown. The Steelers recently had a five-game winning streak in which 11 points would have been enough to win four of the five games.

Not that Roethlisberger has to be silly safe -- just smart.

If the Steelers meet Tennessee again, for example, the Titans clearly are vulnerable to the pass. The Jets and Texans shredded them, and Roethlisberger threw for 303 yards.

Pass, then.

Just don't pass it to the other team and cover the ball in critical areas of the field (like the goal line).

Roethlisberger is more than capable of playing this type of football. He attempted 177 passes during the five-game winning streak -- at least 30 in each game -- and threw only one interception.

Big Ben remains the Steelers' best bet on a flawed offense.

I agree wholeheartedly with Baltimore's Samari Rolle, who said, after Roethlisberger drove his team 92 yards to victory, "Ben moving around is their best play."

It's not exactly The Year of the Prolific Offense in the AFC. Playoff games can and likely will be won ugly.

The Steelers, if they protect the football, have as good a chance as anyone. Maybe better, with that defense.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Coonelly: Pirates' deal with Doumit might be it

President says Maholm's talks going no better than McLouth's

Tuesday, December 23, 2008
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit signed a three-year contract that includes a club option for an additional two years.

The Pirates completed their multiyear contract with catcher Ryan Doumit with a news conference yesterday at PNC Park but, to hear team president Frank Coonelly tell it, that might be it for the winter as far as internal extensions.

It became known last week that talks toward a multiyear contract with center fielder Nate McLouth were "close to dead," as agent Mike Nicotera described them. And Coonelly made clear yesterday that the same appears true of talks with starter Paul Maholm, the only other arbitration-eligible player the team has approached.

"It is entirely possible that this will be the only player with whom we reach a multiyear contract this year," Coonelly said of Doumit. "We have had difficulty persuading the representatives of the other players that multiyear contracts signed by comparable players have any relevance at all, and that the annual salaries in contracts buying out arbitration years must reflect that the risks of injury and below-expected performance shifts from the player to the club."

Maholm's agent, Bo McKinnis, has not returned phone calls for weeks.

Arbitration-eligible players who do not sign extensions instead will get the standard one-year offers. McLouth and Maholm each has all three years of arbitration ahead of him, after which he can become a free agent.

The Doumit contract, in stark contrast, was being hailed by both parties: The Pirates secured the rights to their starting catcher for five years, through 2013, by guaranteeing three years and adding a club option for two more. For Doumit, the guaranteed value is $11.5 million, the maximum roughly $27 million.

The breakdown:

• There is a $300,000 signing bonus.

• The salaries for the guaranteed part of the contract are $2.05 million next season, $3.55 million for 2010, $5.1 million for 2011. Those buy out all three years of Doumit's arbitration eligibility.

• The salaries for the club option years are $7.25 million in 2012, $8.25 million the following season. The option, which covers both years, must be exercised or rejected by late 2011. A buyout would cost $500,000.

• There also are incentive and escalator clauses that increase the total value of the contract by $1 million or more. The most prominent escalator: If Doumit is named an All-Star once in the first three years, the salary on each of the two option years goes up by $125,000, by $350,000 if named twice, by $500,000 if named in all three.

The contract raised to four the number of multiyear extensions reached under Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, along with second baseman Freddy Sanchez and pitchers Ian Snell and Matt Capps.

None has reached as far into the future as this one.

"This contract has raised the bar in our eyes, in our fans' eyes and in Ryan's eyes," Huntington said.

Some might see the term as jarring, given that Doumit, 27, had a history of injuries leading into a healthy, productive 2008 in which he batted .318 with 15 home runs and 69 RBIs.

"This contract did not happen because Ryan Doumit had a great year," Huntington said. "It happened because he worked hard, gave it all he had, showed team dedication and proved himself to be someone we could build around. And he's not done. There's more to come."

It was Huntington who, in a closed-door meeting with Doumit in late 2007, stepped out of his typically congenial personality and issued what, by all accounts, was a rather harshly worded challenge.

"And you know what?" Doumit was recalling with a grin yesterday. "He didn't say anything that wasn't true."

By Doumit's admission, he was "carrying 20 extra pounds" at the time and, apparently more galling in Huntington's eyes, did not seem fully aware of his potential.

"He told me, 'Look, we need you to be a great player, not a good one.' " Doumit said.

"The credit goes to Ryan," Huntington said of the exchange. "We saw potential, but we felt it was untapped. We felt like part of that, as an organization, was our fault. Part of it was on his end. We spoke to him about it, and he could have had it go in one ear and out the other. But he didn't."

Huntington also credited manager John Russell, who, along with senior adviser Chuck Tanner, pushed hard this past spring to end the experimentation of Doumit in right field and first base and get him back behind the plate.

Doumit seemed genuinely moved by the signing, recalling that he nearly broke down last week when told some of the financial terms by his longtime agent, Paul Cobbe.

"Oh, man, I can't relate to you what I feel right now," Doumit said. "But I also know that, with a contract like this come high expectations. And no one has higher expectations than I do. I believe in myself. I know what type of player I can be, and I know what type of player the fans expect. It's my job and my duty as a Pittsburgh Pirate to give those fans everything I have."

Doumit was asked about the Pirates' chances for a successful 2009, particularly in light of shortstop Jack Wilson's public comment last week in which he called upon management to acquire "more players."

After a deep breath, Doumit replied: "The players want to win, and we believe we can win. But you know what? We can say this to each other until we're blue in the face. It's time for players to man up and play like they can. Don't look around. Don't worry about which guy isn't doing it. Don't point fingers. Be accountable for your own actions. If we can get nine guys to be accountable for their own actions, we should be fine."

Doumit never referenced Wilson. Instead, he seemed focused on the pitching staff that he handled and wound up the worst in Major League Baseball in 2008.

"This is the major leagues," he continued. "This isn't the place for babysitting. And I know some of those guys are disappointed in themselves, but they should be. They are better than that. They've all proven that."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog.
First published on December 23, 2008 at 12:00 am

Toweling off: Steelers 'terrible' vs. Tennessee

The Steelers say they won't forget Titans players disgracing the Terrible Towel, but that kind of motivation shouldn't be a factor in a rematch in the AFC title game -- if there is one

Tuesday, December 23, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mark Humphrey/AP

Tennessee Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck walks on a Terrible Towel after dropping it on the ground in the final moments of the Titans' 31-14 win against the Steelers Sunday in Nashville, Tenn.

If the Steelers are fortunate enough to play the Tennessee Titans again in the AFC championship game Jan. 18, much will be made of the awful Terrible Towel desecration that took place Sunday at LP Field. Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck and running back LenDale White stomped on 'em. Defensive end Jevon Kearse wiped his nose with one. Yuck!

And Steelers Nation recoiled in horror.

Blasphemous, I tell you.

Sacrilegious, too.

"We won't forget it," Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said after the Titans dispensed a frightful 31-14 licking.

Of course, they won't forget.

And if the Steelers beat the Titans in the rematch, they will say the Towel travesty gave them all the motivation they needed.

What a crock.

Like the chance to advance to Super Bowl XLIII isn't enough to get them going.

I'm thinking the Towel terror will have very little to do with the outcome of a rematch.

I'm also thinking the Steelers are good enough to beat the Titans the next time, that they still are the better team despite that smackdown Sunday.

But back to the Towel trauma for a moment ...

It's understandable why the Titans felt dissed coming into the game. They were 3 1/2-point underdogs despite having a better record and playing at home. Then, they had to take their field for their biggest game in years and see thousands of yellow Towels blowing in the icy Nashville breeze. "We came out of the locker room and got booed to a certain degree," said Titans safety Chris Hope, who once played for the Steelers and knows how their fans always find their way into a game, no matter the site.

So the Titans celebrated their big win.

"Anybody who comes through here in the playoffs, we plan to stomp them out," Bulluck said after doing his little look-at-me dance on a Towel. "That has to be our stand."

I admire that attitude.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Steelers," Bulluck added.

I believe that.

The Steelers know it, too.

That's why this Towel trashing will have no more impact than a similar Towel trashing did in the 2005 season. The Steelers didn't win their playoffs rematch against the Cincinnati Bengals because Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh had wiped his cleats on a Towel in their previous game. They won because defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen knocked out Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer on the second play, their defense sacked Palmer's replacement Jon Kitna four times and intercepted two passes and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes.

So it has to be in a rematch with the Titans.

The Steelers won't even have to take out Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins to win.

Their defense is capable of playing much better than it did Sunday. It didn't force a turnover after getting 10 in the three previous games. It allowed the ordinary Collins to have a 102.1 passer rating.

Certainly, Roethlisberger is capable of playing much better. He lost two fumbles -- one at the Titans' 1 in the first quarter with the game scoreless, the game's most telling play -- and threw two interceptions after going 130 passes without a pick.

Even the Steelers' sick running game is capable of playing better, although that wouldn't take much. I'll bet the house the Titans won't hold running back Willie Parker to 29 yards on 18 carries -- including nine for 0 or minus yards -- again even if they do get back injured starting defensive linemen Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch.

The point is the Titans played a near-perfect game Sunday, the Steelers a thoroughly rotten game.

I can see a different outcome the next time.

That's if there is a next time.

You want something to worry about? Worry about the Steelers' first playoff game Jan. 10 or 11 at Heinz Field. Worry if they have to play the San Diego Chargers, who, though 7-8, suddenly have the AFC West Division title in sight thanks to Denver's collapse, have won three games in a row and almost won at Heinz Field Nov. 16 when they weren't playing so well. Worry about the Indianapolis Colts, who have won eight in a row, have Peyton Manning and did win at Heinz Field Nov. 9 when they weren't nearly so hot. Even worry about the New England Patriots, who have won three consecutive games since the Steelers pasted them, 33-10, in Foxborough, Mass., Nov. 30 and know something about winning playoff games in Pittsburgh.

All of those teams are capable of beating the Steelers.

Maybe more capable than the underwhelming Titans.

And they didn't even terrorize the Towel.

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on December 23, 2008 at 12:00 am

Monday, December 22, 2008

Run game ran Steelers to 31-14 loss

Monday, December 22, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians emerged from the training room with a bag of ice yesterday after what only can be described as a Music City massacre, a wise guy couldn't resist.

"For your head?"

"For my knees," Arians said, smiling sadly.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Willie Parker ran for 29 yards on 18 carries against the Titans yesterday in Nashville, Tenn.

He probably should have considered an extra bag for his head.

This dud of a performance by the Steelers' offense in a 31-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans left everyone involved with a massive headache.

"Hold on, I've got to grab some Tylenol," wide receiver Hines Ward said before heading for the team bus.


We probably shouldn't be surprised that the Steelers coughed up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs to the Titans. They really haven't been able to run the ball since early in the season, before running back Willie Parker was hurt. Yesterday, they couldn't run it at all.

"That's not good enough," Arians said when told of Parker's numbers against the Titans: 18 carries for a sickly 29 yards, including nine carries for 0 or negative yards.

Parker and the running game were so ineffective that, if you throw out his 13-yard run in the first quarter, he had 17 carries for 16 yards.

Against a defense playing without injured starting tackle Albert Haynesworth and end Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Pass that Tylenol!

"To get to where we want to go as a team, we have to be able to run the ball," Arians said. "It's a recipe for disaster at times when you put everything on your quarterback because that brings the offensive line into it with pass protection."

Certainly, it was a disaster yesterday. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who pulled out late wins against Baltimore and Dallas the previous two weeks, had no miracle to beat the Titans. He fumbled four times and lost two, including a killer at the Titans' 1 early in the game. He also threw two interceptions, the first ending a streak of 130 passes without a pick. Just to make his day totally rotten, he was sacked five times.

As usual, Roethlisberger took the blame. "I didn't play well," he said. Members of the Steelers' proud defense sang the same sad song after looking nothing like the NFL's best defense, allowing 323 yards and not forcing a turnover. "The worst we played all year -- by far," linebacker James Farrior said.

Still, it came back to that miserable running game.

Is it Parker? Is he still not healthy after knee and shoulder injuries early in the season?

Is it the offensive line? Are those guys really as bad as they look at times?

Or is it Arians and the play-calling? Is he committed enough to the run?

I'm thinking it's all three.

Ben Roethlisberger fumbles the ball as he is hit by Tennessee Titans defensive end Jason Jones during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008. The Steelers recovered the ball on the play. The Titans won 31-14.(AP)

Arians said Parker is "the best he's been [health-wise] since early in the season." Sorry, I don't see that. I don't see the same burst that Parker had when he rushed for 138 yards against Houston in the opener and 105 against Cleveland in Week 2. He had 47 yards against Baltimore and 25 against Dallas, making this easily his worst three-game stretch since he became a starter in 2005.

The offensive line is better than it was early in the season, but it's still ordinary, at best. Those guys made Titans backup tackle Jason Jones -- in for Haynesworth -- look like Mean Joe Greene. "Everything was just opening up," Jones said after getting 3 1/2 sacks, three quarterback hurries and forcing three of Roethlisberger's fumbles.

And Arians? Despite his claim that "no one likes to run the ball more than I do," he always has liked the pass a little better than the run, going back to his days as Cleveland's offensive coordinator. He acknowledged yesterday that we "didn't run the ball enough and didn't run it well enough."

Maybe Arians is right not to have great trust in this Steelers line and running game. Maybe he's smart to put the ball in Roethlisberger's hands.

But that doesn't change the fact that the Steelers have to be able to run the ball at least a little bit to go deep in the playoffs. They have to somehow find a way to slow opponents' pass rush because those fellas are looking to maim Roethlisberger.

"We need to get Willie Parker to be Willie Parker, and we need to block for him," Arians said.

Sounds easy.

Getting it done isn't.

No matter.

"Games like this, you've got to be able to run the ball," Parker said, flatly. "That sets up everything. Look at the formula they used today. They were real successful with it."

The Titans got 69 yards from running back Chris Johnson and 48 from LenDale White. It's no coincidence that quarterback Kerry Collins had a 102.1 passer rating and was sacked just once.

"I think we can do that, too," Parker said. "We're definitely not far off. We've just got to get it rectified. We've got three weeks [before the first playoff game]."

That might not be enough time.

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on December 22, 2008 at 12:00 am

Fourth down turns ghastly for Steelers

Monday, December 22, 2008
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Ghosts of Tennessee spooked the Steelers from their five-game win streak yesterday, and the bloodied AFC North champions described it from a kind of altered consciousness, like someone trying to patch the holes in a nightmare.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger dives for the Titans' Michael Griffin after he intercepted a pass late in the fourth quarter yesterday at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.

Larry Foote couldn't recall the details of any of the critical fourth-down plays the Tennessee Titans converted behind graybeard-in-chief Kerry Collins.

Lawrence Timmons remembered that he had been on the field for a third-and-20 play that preceded a fourth-and-1, but not whether he had been present for the next play.

Aaron Smith was fairly certain Chris Hoke had been pinched for the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on fourth-and-1 at the 4, but wasn't sure what Hoke had done to offend.

It was the Fright Before Christmas, and it was haunted by sour Steelers karma from one end of the Music City lawn to the other.

At one end lay the ignominious spot where Dwayne Washington ran into kicker Joe Nedney to allow the re-kick that ended their 2002 season here in playoff overtime. At the other lay James Harrison after a terrifying lunge that temporarily removed him from the starting lineup. Somewhere in the middle, Ben Roethlisberger sidestepped a Mr. Nick Harper to gain one of the Steelers' exiguous three rushing first downs. Had this same Mr. Harper sidestepped Big Ben in an Indianapolis Dome three years ago come January, Mike Tomlin would be walking past only four Lombardi Trophies when he comes to work each day.

"We've got to sharpen our sword, no doubt," Foote said after watching as many opponent touchdowns in four quarters as the Steelers had allowed in the previous five weeks. "When we went 15-1 [in 2004], our sword wasn't that sharp when we got to the playoffs."

These 2008 Steelers open the playoffs in three weeks, and it might take every hour of the interim to sharpen their sword and their self-image back to full luster after a 31-14 whipping that left little room to misinterpret who the boss is in this AFC.

Tomlin can start the workweek by re-examining three plays that confirmed this suspicion: If it's a bad day for the defense when you can't get off the field on third down, it's an even worse day when you can't get off the field on fourth down.

The stats-afflicted knew well that the Steelers were the worst team in the league on fourth down before yesterday, but that was just the offense. Who knew the defense could match those guys faux pas for pas faux?

"They converted some big plays on us, that's for sure," Smith said. "That's a good team."

The Titans are 13-2 this morning, but might not be without the highly improbable results of three fourth downs, the first coming after Collins found Justin McCareins tiptoeing at the sideline for 19 yards on the aforementioned third-and-20, the one Timmons did remember.

"Was he inbounds?" Timmons asked.

Oh yeah.

On fourth-and-inches then from the the Steelers' 21, with the Steelers ahead 14-10, Collins faked a handoff to something called a fullback moving to his right, but then flipped the ball back to tailback Chris Johnson, who was headed in the opposite direction. Ike Taylor flashed into the Titans backfield, but fell at the 24. By the time Johnson burst into the secondary, this so-called fullback, Ahmard Hall, reversed direction and put a quasi-legal block on Ryan Clark to spring Johnson for a touchdown.

"It's feast or famine on that one," Collins said. "You really take your chances pitching it back like that. We had a pretty good idea we'd get C.J. one-on-one with the corner [Taylor], and he made him miss."

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 21: LenDale White #25 of the Tennessee Titans runs for a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers during their game on December 21, 2008 at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Just one Steelers turnover later, the Titans contemplated fourth-and-3 from the Steelers' 30, and Collins hit his other big wideout, the 6-4 Justin Gage, floating between the corner and the safety on the opposite sideline for 17 yards.

"Usually on that, the corner will run with the receiver," Collins said, "but on that one the corner came off with [tight end] Bo [Scaife]."

That put Tennessee at the 13, and Scaife caught another Collins bullet at the 4 to set up another fourth-and-inches. This time, Jeff Fisher sent Rob Bironas off the sideline for a 21-yard field-goal try into a tricky wind, but before the snap, the Steelers were called for unsportsmanlike conduct.

"I guess someone from our front simulated a cadence of some kind," said Tomlin, whose general characterization of yesterday's performance was "below the line."

Chris Hoke got called for it, but Steelers kicker Jeff Reed said that was bogus.

"People bark at me all the time out there," said the Steelers kicker. "It's never an issue. It is a penalty, but it's never called."

That moved the ball inside the 2, from where LenDale White obliged with the fourth-quarter touchdown that erected a 10-point lead that was fairly substantial on an occasion when the offense was producing twice as many turnovers as touchdowns.

So the Steelers left Dixie with the same No. 2 seed with which they arrived, leaving only next week's dress rehearsal against the Browns between themselves and their destiny.

"I look forward to Cleveland," Tomlin said.

I'm sure that has been said out loud before, but it's funny when you hear it.

Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283.
First published on December 22, 2008 at 12:00 am

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Steelers' Roethlisberger has it when it counts the most

Sunday, December 21, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/James Hilston/Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger's ability to scramble can get him in trouble, but it also has its rewards.

John Elway was the greatest fireman in football, the best at pulling out dramatic victories at the tail end of games. No one did it better nor more often.

Not only does the name "The Drive" belong to Elway, it was forged in a bronze sculpture titled "Master of the Drive,'' to honor the famous 98-yarder he delivered in Cleveland, and stands as a tribute to the quarterback with the most game-winning drives in history.

Elway pulled games out of the fire so often in the fourth quarter that Denver Broncos public-relations man, Jim Saccomano, a legend in his own right, developed a statistic to quantify it. He devised the "game-winning drive" to put in perspective Elway's late heroics.

"It became something I could no longer recite off the top of my head,'' Saccomano said this week about the many requests for the statistic that came his way during Elway's career.

So, in conjunction with the NFL's official stats keepers, the Elias Sports Bureau, Saccomano researched other quarterbacks and compared them to what Elway had done. He came up with the game-winning drive.

The game-winning drive must be a fourth-quarter drive that either wins the game or ties it for an ultimate victory. It's not an official NFL stat, but unofficially Elway has the most at 47 and that's never been disputed.

It may never be approached either, but there's one fellow who is off to a good start. He, too, wears No. 7, mainly because he loved John Elway. Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback fastest to win 50

NFL games, has 18 winning touc hdown drives (including one in the playoffs), five of them this season.

Elway's rate of GWTDs during his 16-year career was 2.9 per season. Roethlisberger, with at least three games left in this season, has a rate of 3.6. His passer rating this season is down (80.1, from a team-record 104.1 last season), and his touchdowns passes are way down (15, from a team-record 32), but the way Roethlisberger is performing late in games might be enough for him to earn some of the league's MVP votes.

One off-shore oddsmaker lists Roethlisberger's chances of winning the MVP at 5-1, or third behind Adrian Peterson (3-2) and Peyton Manning (2-1).

Roethlisberger could be called the "It" guy, as in he has it when it counts.

"I just think that's the difference between good quarterbacks and average quarterbacks,'' said veteran Byron Leftwich, Roethlisberger's backup this season. "What makes good quarterbacks good is that they can come through in situations like that, put teams on their backs and win football games. And you have some guys in those same situations and no matter what, they can't get the job done."

Ben Roethlisberger evades a tackle by Dallas Cowboys Jay Ratliff during the third quarter of their NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, December 7, 2008.(Reuters)

Roethlisberger showed that winning games late would be a trademark of his when he had six game-winning drives as a rookie, one in the playoffs against the Jets.

He will be the first to note that he is not alone in these things, but he has been the common denominator.

Asked about it this week, he recalled an old joke, once told by Jake Plummer, that if he didn't play so poorly in the first three quarters there might be no need for game-winning drives in the fourth.

"I wish it didn't come down to that, but sometimes it does,'' Roethlisberger said. "We'll take it. It adds to the fun and suspense.

"Sometimes we do it just so the fans keep watching."

His most memorable one occurred a week ago, a 92-yarder that beat Baltimore and delivered a division title and first-round playoff bye to the Steelers.

"I didn't give any big rah-rah speeches,'' he said of that drive. "I think the guys look at me now and know me enough to say, 'Let's just go out and do it.'"

Veteran quarterback Charlie Batch, Roethlisberger's backup until a broken collarbone put him on injured reserve this summer, said, "He's one of those guys who understands the situation and thrives on that. You do have to be special to do that.''

His teammates believe as long as they have time on the clock and are within a touchdown, they have a chance behind Roethlisberger.

"That's why everybody calls him one of the best in this game,'' Leftwich said, "because, when the team needs you the most, when it's time to make plays, he jump-started all that. It's what good quarterbacks do. They live for those moments.

"I know what kind of quarterback he is; I played against the guy and now I'm playing with him. I think everybody knows what Ben does for this team."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on December 21, 2008 at 12:00 am

Clark, Polamalu developed deep trust

Sunday, December 21, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu pretty much had his mind made up. There was no chance the new man -- that Clark guy from Washington -- was going to be as good as former teammate Chris Hope. There was just no way. No disrespect to anyone, but hadn't the team gone 15-1 in 2004 with Hope and Polamalu terrorizing opponents in the secondary? Hadn't it won the Super Bowl in 2005?

Poor Ryan Clark, right?

Not exactly.

Turns out the man had his own preconceived ideas when he replaced Hope after that Super Bowl season.

Troy Polamalu

"I said there was no way I'd like Troy as much as I liked [former Redskins teammate] Sean Taylor and that there was no way Troy would be as good as Sean or as good as everyone was saying he was," Clark said after practice the other day in the Steelers' cafeteria.

You might guess what's coming next.

"I'm sure glad both of us were wrong," Clark said, grinning.

Ya think?

Clark is on a legitimate Super Bowl contender for the first time in his career, an 11-3 team that will play Hope -- what a coincidence -- and the Tennessee Titans in Nashville today with the top seed in the AFC playoffs at stake. "We feel like we have the goods to get [a Super Bowl] done," Clark said. "If we don't, there are going to be 53 very disappointed people."

The Steelers' defense -- the best in the NFL -- has been huge in the team's success. "Without a doubt, this is the best [secondary] group we've had," Polamalu said. "In the past, our Achilles' heel may have been pass defense. Not anymore. That's all attributable to Ryan."

It's official.

Clark and Polamalu are thrilled both were wrong.

So are the other Steelers.

"I was hoping this would be how it turned out," Clark said. "I talked to [Steelers linebacker] Larry Foote about it. He said it wasn't like the guys didn't like me. It was just that I was replacing a guy that they loved."

Polamalu remains close with Hope, who left as a free agent and signed a six-year, $30 million deal with the Titans. The two are looking forward to playing together again in the Pro Bowl Feb. 8. Polamalu, a defensive player of the year candidate, made it for the fifth consecutive year. Hope, who has four interceptions this season and ranks third on the Titans in tackles, made it for the first time.

Hope's story is remarkable because he came back from a serious neck injury last season that required surgery in January. But it's no more amazing than Clark's tale. He came back from near death.

"The first speech I got from the doctors in the hospital was that my lungs had filled, my kidneys were dented and my stomach was closing," Clark said. "My spleen had gotten enlarged and infected and it died ...

"I never really thought I was going to die except for maybe one day when I was at home. I was so cold, I couldn't stop shaking. My wife got out the hair dryer and was blowing it on me. My mother was there, putting hats and coats on me while I was in bed. I still couldn't get warm. That was rough."

Clark had his spleen removed in November 2007, then his gall bladder in December. His weight plummeted from 203 to 170. "A lot of people were skeptical I'd ever be able to play again," he said. "They didn't think someone could lose that much weight and strength."

But doctors cleared Clark for training in late January. By June, his weight was up to 198. He was back in the starting lineup next to Polamalu the first day of training camp. The Steelers had learned just how valuable Clark was last season when he was out. Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter tried and failed to play his position.

Is it any wonder that Clark says this is the most fun he has had in football?

"I learned that tomorrow isn't promised," he said, referring not just to his illness, but also the shooting death of his good friend Taylor little more than a year ago.

"I'm convinced God picked me and kept me for a reason ... Why not play with a smile on your face?"

Ryan Clark

So Clark has, through a dislocated right shoulder injury that forced him to miss the Nov. 3 Washington game -- of all games -- and despite some nasty hate mail after his brutal hit on New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker Nov. 30. I thought that hit was late and told Clark so. He said he respected that opinion, but he couldn't disagree more.

"I did my job on that play," he said. "I don't like that people said I tried to hurt him. I don't like being called a dirty player. I know what it's like not to be able to play and to almost have football taken away from me. I never want to be a guy who takes it away from someone else."

It's a shame that the Welker hit received more attention than Clark's many other contributions to the Steelers. The latest came in the win against the Baltimore Ravens last week when he intercepted a pass that was tipped by teammate Ike Taylor.

"I feel like I'm playing well, but it's hard to feel like you're playing great when you see Troy out there," Clark said. "I see him do things that I've never seen anyone do. There's no one else I'd rather play with."

The two really have come a long way.

"I feel like we've played all our lives together," Polamalu said. "Ryan is so unselfish and so smart. We communicate with each other and trust each other. That trust is the big thing."

The same sort of trust Polamalu had with Hope.

The same trust Clark had with Taylor.

Imagine that.

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on December 21, 2008 at 12:00 am