Sunday, November 30, 2008

Steelers' two-back attack pays off

By John Harris
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Monday, December 1, 2008


FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 30: Ellis Hobbs III #27 of the New England Patriots tries to pull down Willie Parker #39 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 30, 2008 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Steelers defeated the Patriots 33-10. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Wonders never cease. The Steelers played their top two running backs for the majority of Sunday's game against the New England Patriots. A real, live two-back attack for the tradition-bound one-back Steelers. Imagine that.

Not because Willie Parker was injured during the contest - he wasn't. And not because Mewelde Moore is a superior pass receiver- which he is.

Just because.

"I think it is a good thing,'' center Justin Hartwig said. "We have two guys that have been getting it done for us all year.''

Guess what? The Steelers' two-back attack worked to perfection during a satisfying 33-10 win at Gillette Stadium. Why it took so long to embrace playing two healthy running backs during the course of a 60-minute game is a question for another day for coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

The two-back attack worked yesterday because the Steelers believed it would work.

"That was the plan," Tomlin said. "We were going to use both guys.''

Alternating Parker and Moore in the backfield against New England made sense because the old way - run Willie until his wheels fall off; Tomlin's words, not mine - just wasn't working.

To be blunt, Parker hasn't been the same player since breaking his leg toward the end of last season and then suffering knee and shoulder injuries this season. He hasn't run with the same burst or explosiveness. That's understandable, considering the severity of his injury.

In fact, it was surprising to see Parker make such a fast recovery from the broken leg. It was even more surprising when Parker carried the ball 25 times for 138 yards and three touchdowns against Houston in the opener. The following week against Cleveland, Parker had 28 carries for 105 yards.

The following week against Philadelphia? Don't ask.

OK, Parker was held to 20 yards on 13 carries before leaving the game against the Eagles with a knee injury. He's been in and out of the lineup with injuries ever since.


FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 30: Mewelde Moore #21 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball past Lewis Sanders #29 and Jerod Mayo #51 of the New England Patriots on November 30, 2008 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Parker carried the ball 16 times for 87 yards, including 71 yards on 11 carries in the second half. More important, he appeared to run stronger and faster in the fourth quarter than he did in the first quarter. Parker's 31-yard bolt in the fourth quarter setting up a Jeff Reed field goal was his longest run since a 32-yarder in the opener.

"I never thought I'd be happy with something like that,'' Parker said of the two-back approach. "But that's the perfect thing for me right now and the perfect thing for the team.

"It really worked - I feel good,'' Parker said. "I'm not where I need to be, but I feel a lot better.''

Parker's body didn't absorb the same amount of punishment he would have received if he had carried the ball 28 times - the combined number of carries Parker and Moore shared against the Patriots. Moore rushed 12 times for 67 yards.

"It looked real good, didn't it?'' Moore said. "Given the opportunity, we made plays. We were real consistent, real patient, and we came through.''

Some people in the press box were under the mistaken impression that Parker, who wore a parka on the sideline when he wasn't in the game, was injured, so accustomed is everyone to seeing No. 39 in the lineup. Parker was simply attempting to stay dry and semi-warm in the wind, rain and cold weather.

It worked once. Let's hope this isn't the last we see of the Steelers' two-back attack.

John Harris is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.

Steelers win might doom Patriots' hopes

Monday, December 01, 2008
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 30: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates a touchdown in the third quarter against the New England Patriots on November 30, 2008 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- During maybe five mumbling minutes of postgame Q & A, Bill Belichick offered zero insight into something so startling as a 23-point loss at home by a team not even a year removed from being virtually unbeatable, except to say that the Patriots had their opportunities and didn't take advantage.

He was lucky they took advantage of the opportunity to leave the premises after 60 soggy minutes of being brutalized by the NFL's best defense, or he would have had problems filling the plane for Seattle next weekend.

On the day the other shoe finally dropped from a season-opening-and-closing injury to future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, the Patriots were humbled by a raging Steelers defense that went virtually out of control.

James Harrison ran the Light.

Troy Polamalu robbed the Cassel.

And yonder comes a postseason very likely to include no Patriot games.

"Five [losses] isn't going to knock us out," Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel said, even though his team is 4-5 in the AFC and loses tiebreakers to most contenders. "The game plan we had today included a good idea of what they were going to do and, for the most part, that played out the way we thought it would."

New England had turnovers on five consecutive second-half possessions, gained a sickly 267 yards after just having put up 500-yard games back-to-back, went 1 for 13 on third down and scored its only touchdown on a drive that started at the Steelers' 14.

"I put a lot of blame on myself," said big-play wideout Randy Moss, who dropped balls all over the lawn, including one in the back of the end zone that would have lifted the Patriots into a 17-10 halftime lead. "It'll probably bother me until next Sunday. Once you start catching the ball you get into a rhythm, but once you drop one and then drop another, it starts to get to you mentally. But that's why they call us pros; you're supposed to let the bad go.

"The last couple of weeks, from an offensive standpoint, people thought we were riding high. Today some bad things started happening and they trickled on down."


FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 30: Willie Parker #39 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball as Ellis Hobbs III #27 of the New England Patriots defends on November 30, 2008 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Steelers defeated the Patriots 33-10. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

They started happening after the second of Jeff Reed's four field goals erected a 13-10 Steelers lead with 5:39 remaining in the third quarter. The subsequent kickoff hit return man Matthew Slater in the chest, both wrists and one knee before squirting free to Keyaron Fox. Hines Ward scored 28 seconds later. Harrison ruptured New England's next two possessions by blowing past All-Pro left tackle Matt Light and swatting the ball from Cassel's throwing hand. Polamalu ended the next with his sixth interception, and Lawrence Timmons choked off the following possession when he stepped in front of Cassel's lazy out pass to Kevin Faulk at the Steelers' 10 and took it 89 yards the other way.

The New Englanders who've spasmed into the psychotic reasoning that maybe the Patriots should trade Brady got shocked back to coherence here yesterday.

"To be very honest, I'm not going to read what you guys write," Cassel said after his 19-for-39, four-turnover performance. "This isn't about Matt Cassel, or whether Matt Cassel's stock is up or down; it's about a team trying to get better."

To put the Steelers' defensive performance in perspective, you have to remember that Cassel had thrown for 815 yards in the past two weeks with six touchdowns and only one interception. New England scored six touchdowns last weekend at Miami and had more touchdowns in the previous two games (9) than the Steelers had in the previous four (8). Moss caught eight balls in Florida for 125 yards and three touchdowns. Yesterday, he caught four for 45 yards.

New England's challenges for a closing run of exclusively must-win games aren't just on offense either. The defense has allowed 11 touchdowns in the past three games, and continues to start the wildly overmatched Deltha O'Neal at the left corner.

O'Neal was toasted on Santonio Holmes' first-half touchdown, again on Ward's in the third quarter, and would have had the hat trick if Nate Washington would have held on to Ben Roethlisberger's pass after beating O'Neal down the right sideline.

Belichick said more to O'Neal on the Patriots bench yesterday than he did answering 14 postgame questions.

"I thought we played out there; I just don't think we played well," he said. "We didn't play well enough. I thought there was a lot of good effort out there. We just have to do a better job than we did today."

The Patriots walked into this game having beaten the Steelers in six of their past seven meetings, which included ending Steelers seasons at the gate to the Super Bowl at the end of 2001 and 2004. For Mike Tomlin's team to take a dominating win out of Gillette Stadium had to have its own special sweetness, and eliminating the Patriots before November was over had to taste spectacular.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com.
First published on December 1, 2008 at 12:00 am

Even injured, Harrison's a terror

Monday, December 01, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 30: James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after the Steelers recovered a fumble by the New England Patriots on November 30, 2008 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- James Farrior didn't know. Neither did Aaron Smith. None of the Steelers had any clue that linebacker James Harrison couldn't walk across the Gillette Stadium field at halftime yesterday because of a hyperextended back and needed to be wheeled on a cart to the locker room.

"Just imagine what he would have done in the second half if he had been feeling good," Smith said, fairly giggling.

No kidding.

Harrison made another strong case for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award by leading the Steelers to a 33-10 victory against the New England Patriots in a game they desperately needed as the playoff race hit the three-quarter pole. Twice in the second half, he blew by Pro Bowl tackle Matt Light, rattled quarterback Matt Cassel and forced fumbles that the Steelers recovered. They were his 13th and 14th sacks of the season and, with four games left, he will surely break Mike Merriweather's team record of 15 set in 1987.

What made this Harrison performance so amazing -- in a game the Steelers' No. 1-rated defense also forced Cassel into two interceptions and held the Patriots to 267 total yards -- was that back issue. He said he was hurt on a missed field goal by the Patriots on the next-to-last play of the second quarter.

"Honestly? No, I didn't think I was going to be able to [play in the second half]," Harrison said.

Credit modern medicine.

"They put something hot on it that's still hot right now," Harrison said, nearly an hour after the game. "It still feels like my skin is on fire ...

"I'm sure I'm going to really hurt tomorrow. But that's OK. That's football. This isn't ice skating."

Harrison can take comfort knowing Cassel and the Patriots are aching a lot worse today. Their playoff chances took a huge hit with this loss. Their offense clearly was overmatched by the Steelers' defense and was shut out in the second half. The game's key statistic: The Patriots were 1 of 13 on third down.

Harrison wasn't the only star.

"The defense, well, they were their usual selves," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

Fired-up nose tackle Casey Hampton -- angry about a defensive holding call against him two plays earlier -- busted up center Dan Koppen to sack Cassel on second-and-1 at the Steelers' 31 early in the third quarter to take the Patriots out of field-goal range. "Yeah, I was mad," the man they call Big Snack said. "After the sack, I told the ref, 'Hold that!' "

Smith played his usual terrific game, sharing a sack of Cassel with Farrior and tackling running back Kevin Faulk for a 5-yard loss on a screen pass. So did safety Troy Polamalu, who hit Cassel to force an incompletion on a third-and-2 play at the Steelers' 11 and later had an interception for the third consecutive game, his sixth of the season.

This just wasn't Cassel's day.

It's funny. There was much talk in New England last week about the Patriots maybe trading injured Tom Brady and going into the future with Cassel, who had thrown for 400 yards in the two previous games against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.

Two quick observations:

One, that wasn't the Jets' or Dolphins' defense that Cassel faced yesterday.

And two, Cassel ain't no Brady in any way, shape or form.

"Tell you the truth, I don't think he's ever been hit like that," Steelers nose tackle Chris Hoke said.

Cassel was sacked five times. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley got him late in the game, bringing his sack total for the season to 11 1/2. He and Harrison are the most prolific pair of pass rushers in Steelers history.

No wonder Cassel had a rough day.

"It seemed like we had him flustered," Hoke said.

Harrison has been known to have that kind of impact on quarterbacks. In addition to the two strip sacks of Cassel and the forced fumbles, he was credited with a team-high nine tackles, two tackles for losses and a quarterback hurry.

"Not to take it for granted, but that's what we've come to expect from him," Tomlin said.

"He took over the game," Farrior said. "It just seems like he's able to take it to another level whenever he wants."

"It's unbelievable what he does," Smith said. "I don't know how to describe it. Every time we need something, it seems like he comes up with it for us."

You might guess who gets the Steelers' vote for that NFL Defensive Player of the Year thing.

"I know there are some great players in this league," Smith said. "But find me someone else who does it with his consistency. Find me someone else who does it week in and week out the way he does it."

Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and the Cowboys are next for Harrison and the Steelers.

I'm happy to report Harrison said his back should be fine for the game Sunday at Heinz Field.

On second thought, maybe that isn't such a good thing.

Said Smith, "We all should be lucky enough to play healthy the way he plays hurt."

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on December 1, 2008 at 12:00 am

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The type of thing that makes a grown man cry

Sunday, November 30, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Dick LeBeau -- Might be the most beloved coach in all of football


The Heinz Field crowd for the Steelers-Cincinnati Bengals game Nov. 20, though late-arriving because of abhorrent weather conditions, still was sizable 20 minutes before kickoff when the Steelers honored defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau at midfield for his 50 years in the NFL. Dan Rooney was there. So was his son, Art II. But LeBeau only had eyes for No. 51 and No. 43 and No. 98 and the rest of his defensive guys -- every last one of 'em -- who were on the sideline to pay tribute to the man who has to be the most respected and beloved coach in all of football.

"I didn't see anybody but those players," LeBeau said the other day in a quiet moment.

It was quite a scene when they swarmed around LeBeau after the brief ceremony. One by one, they shook his hand and hugged him. What an odd way, it seemed, to prepare for a big game, a division game no less.

"I would have stood out there for an hour and froze my butt off if I had to for that man," defensive end Aaron Smith said.

This isn't the first time the defensive players have honored LeBeau. Late in the 2005 season, they each spent $300 to buy a retro LeBeau No. 44 jersey from his playing days with the Detroit Lions and hung them in the locker room before they played the Lions. LeBeau cried. Last season, they dug out those jerseys and wore them to their exhibition game in Canton, Ohio, a not-so-subtle suggestion that they think it's a tragedy LeBeau isn't in the Hall of Fame despite his 62 interceptions as a Pro Bowl cornerback and his long-time brilliance as a defensive genius. LeBeau cried. Then, on the eve of LeBeau's 70th birthday Sept. 9, 2007, they gave him a gold-and-silver Rolex watch. LeBeau cried.

Now, this 50-year thing.

"Sure, I can put it into words what it meant seeing them on the field -- everything. It meant everything to me," LeBeau said. "I'm trying not to cry right now..."

This season, LeBeau's defense is making opponents cry. Going into the game today at New England, it ranks first in the league in run defense, pass defense and total defense. That's one amazing hat trick.

Really, the players' strong performance is the best way to honor LeBeau, isn't it?

"They're playing as if they want me around for another year," LeBeau said.

Another year?

"If he leaves, I don't know how much longer I would want to play," Smith said. "After him, I don't want to play for anybody else. I couldn't imagine this place without him."

Smith need not worry.

Even though LeBeau is 71 and the oldest coach in the NFL, he said he feels the way he did, well, 50 years ago. "The stress and strain of the job aren't any worse than they've always been," he said.

As for the Steelers, they seem pretty satisfied with LeBeau's work. "He's doing all right," coach Mike Tomlin said, grinning. No one has a job for life -- Joe Paterno aside, of course -- but LeBeau comes pretty close.

"You can count me among the amazed group when it comes to Dick LeBeau," Tomlin said.


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

When defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau speaks, players such as inside linebacker James Farrior listen.


LeBeau hesitated when asked what keeps him going in what clearly is a young man's game. Fortunately, Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt -- a former Steelers offensive coordinator -- did not when asked about LeBeau's longevity.

"I can tell you what keeps him going. I've played enough golf with him to know. He's got a competitive streak that's second to none."

That's it, sure. But there's much more to it. There's the joy LeBeau feels each day when he goes to work with a group of men to pursue a common goal. He loves being around James Farrior (No. 51), Troy Polamalu (No. 43), Casey Hampton (No. 98) and the rest as much as they love being around him.

"They're the greatest," LeBeau said. "I think anybody who comes in contact with them is struck by what good people they are. In today's athletic world, that's not always the case. I'm just so proud of them, on and off the field."

To LeBeau, great defense isn't just about getting sacks, forcing turnovers and preventing touchdowns. The beauty comes from 11 guys working as one. To him, football is the ultimate team sport.

"Our guys grasp that," he said. "I don't have to preach to them about it. They all have great skills and take great pride in themselves as individuals. But the pride in the group is even greater. Gosh, I love that."

The players will tell you it all starts with the man in charge of their unit.

"If he tells us to jump off a cliff, I believe we would do it," Smith said. "If he tells us to do anything, we do it because we know it's the right thing."

It seems funny now the Steelers picked the Bengals game to honor LeBeau. That day, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sent star wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco home for violating a team rule. The problem is believed to have started when Ocho Cinco disrespected offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski during a meeting the night before the game.

"For one thing, that would never happen with coach LeBeau," Smith said. "And if by some chance it ever did, the guy wouldn't make it out of the room in one piece. The rest of us would take care of him."

That's respect.

That's devotion.

That's -- and this is a strange word to use with big, powerful men who play a brutally physical game -- love.

Can you blame LeBeau for crying?

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 30, 2008 at 12:00 am

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Steelers running on empty

By Scott Brown
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Thursday, November 27, 2008


Steelers running back Gary Russell runs against the Bengals.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review file


The Steelers are on pace for their worst rushing season since 2003, and they rank 29th in the NFL with an anemic 3.6 yards per carry.

What is usually a staple of Steelers football is the one thing that has yet to fall into place for a team that is eyeing a run deep into January.

If the Steelers are searching for a way to jump-start their running game -- or an alternate way to move the ball on the ground -- they need to look no further than this Sunday's opponent.

The New England Patriots rank seventh in the NFL in rushing despite relying on largely anonymous running backs and the fact that they throw the ball more than 34 times a game.

"(It) would be a fair assessment to say that their running game works off of their passing game," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Steelers may have to consider doing the same as they embark on the closing stretch of the season.

That may border on blasphemy considering the Steelers have long prided themselves on punishing opponents with a physical running game. Such an approach, however, is not without precedent as the Steelers used it during their stirring playoff run in 2005 and particularly in the AFC Championship Game.

Also, the Steelers may not have much of a choice except to use the pass to set up the run given the injuries that threaten to derail Willie Parker's season.

Parker has missed five games with knee and shoulder injuries. His status for Sunday's 4:15 p.m. game is up in the air because he is again having problems with his left knee.

Mewelde Moore has done a commendable job filling in for Parker, but the Steelers rank 24th in the NFL in rushing (101.7 yards per game). And if there is a question of how much the Steelers will be able to depend on Parker, there is no doubt that they will have to run the ball more effectively as the weather, like the schedule, makes for tougher sledding in the final month of the season.

"With the weather conditions later in the season, we're going to depend a lot on our running game," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "At the same time, we're going to make plays in the passing game and use our passing game to spread it out. And maybe we can get long runs on the perimeter by throwing the ball and spreading everybody out."

The Steelers have used a short, controlled passing game to dominate time of possession against their past three opponents. So, in some ways, they have been setting up the run with the pass.

They just have not gotten similar results as the Patriots, who are averaging 131.3 yards on the ground behind Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said it is just a matter of the Steelers staying patient to get the running game going.

"The big thing is not to force the issue," Roethlisberger said. "You can't sit here and say 'OK, let's run it 20 times in a row just so we can get 100 yards. Take what they give us. Work the ball down the field whether it's short passes or long passes, screens or run plays.

"The last couple of games we've really held onto the ball. (The running game) will come in time, and whenever that is, it will be there, and it will be there strong."


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

Malkin, Crosby deflate Islanders

Malkin, Crosby team to fuel third-period rally (yes, another one) against Islanders

Thursday, November 27, 2008
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Ed Betz/Associated Press

Sidney Crosby passes the puck in front of the Islanders' Andy Sutton in the third period.


UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- It should be clear by now that this is not something Michel Therrien does lightly.

He turns to it only in the most dire of circumstances, when there is no reasonable option.

Sure, playing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the same line -- the way Therrien did to spark the Penguins' 5-3 comeback victory against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum last night -- disrupts his forward combinations. It allows opponents to focus their defensive efforts on a single unit, too.

But the best reason of all to keep those two apart might be that it's an act of mercy, because when their games jell the way they did during the third period against the Islanders, Crosby and Malkin can do some pretty terrible things to their opponents.

In this case, combine to score four goals in less than 16 minutes.

"Definitely, they took charge of that game," Therrien said.

Aside from the empty-netter Malkin scored with 17.5 seconds left to complete his third career hat trick, the goals all were the by-product of the kind of offensive magic only world-class talents can create.

Indeed, while Crosby and Malkin have done some pretty remarkable things together during the past few years, their performance last night might be their finest to date.

"It was fun," Crosby said. "Tonight, the pucks went in. ... Luckily for us, we capitalized on every chance we made."

The rampage by Malkin and Crosby overshadowed some solid work by rookie goalie John Curry, who replaced Dany Sabourin at 9:27 of the second period and stopped all 11 shots the Islanders threw at him.

"[The team] didn't play that well in front of [Sabourin]," Curry said. "But they played really well in front of me. ... Especially in the third, I didn't have to do much."

Therrien was noncommittal about whether he will start Sabourin or Curry when the Penguins visit Buffalo at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow.

It is not known if forward Max Talbot will be available for the Sabres game. He took a Radek Martinek shot off the left foot in the second period and is listed as day to day.

Last night marked the seventh time in their first 21 games that the Penguins (13-5-3) rebounded from a deficit after two periods to earn a victory.

That's just five shy of the league record, with 61 games to go.


Ed Betz/Associated Press

Evgeni Malkin scores his third goal of the game against the Islanders in the third period last night at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.


The Penguins made sure they would need a comeback by spotting New York the first three goals.

Doug Weight gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead during a power play at 7:45 of the opening period, six seconds after a two-man advantage expired, and Trent Hunter made it 2-0 70 seconds later.

Bill Guerin knocked Sabourin out of the game by beating him high on the glove side with a slap shot from the high slot.

Sabourin volunteered that, "I'd like to have the third one back," and Therrien didn't disagree.

"This is something [Sabourin] has to learn, to not give up the bad goal," he said. "He's playing well. He's pretty solid, but he has a tendency right now to give up bad goals.

"Unlucky goals. Unlucky goals are bad goals. In this league, you can't have them."

Therrien put Malkin and Crosby together for the first time as the middle of the second approached, and Malkin was serving a high-sticking minor when Guerin got New York's third goal.

That lead, coupled with New York's strong defense in the first two periods, made a rally seem unlikely, at best.

"They played a really good game for two periods," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "They were getting on us right away. We couldn't make plays, because they were taking our time and space away."

But Orpik revived the Penguins by beating New York goalie Joey MacDonald from just inside the blue line with 18.7 seconds left in the second. The goal was his second, tying the career-high he set in 2005-06.

"I've got a lot of games to break that record," he said, smiling.

The comeback gained momentum when Crosby converted a cross-ice feed from Malkin at 6:18 of the third and, at 11:03, Malkin beat MacDonald from the slot after Crosby gave him the puck.

Fifty seconds later, Crosby stole the puck from Islanders defenseman Andy Sutton at the right side of the net and backhanded it in front to Malkin, who buried it behind MacDonald.

That put the Penguins in front to stay and put the league on notice of just what Crosby and Malkin can do.

"They brought their game to another level," Therrien said.

"They knew the game was on the line."

And did everything possible to make sure it was in the bag, too.

Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Ward gathers no moss at WR

Thursday, November 27, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Hines Ward is having a nearly identical season to Patriots receiver Randy Moss this year.


The veteran receiver will take the field in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, still a threat, still productive, still one of the best at his position in the NFL in his 11th season.

Randy Moss of the New England Patriots? Yes, him, too. But, for all the reputation Moss has had as a game-breaking, big-play wide receiver, fellow 1998 draft-class member Hines Ward can stand toe to toe with him this season, even if he is four inches shorter.

At 32, Ward is on pace for his best season since 2003, his first 1,000-yard season since 2004 and virtually matching the faster, taller Moss statistically.

Each has caught 54 passes with Moss having just 22 more yards than Ward's 718. As it is, Ward's 13.3-yard average per catch would be the third highest of his career since he became a starter in 1999, his second season in the league.

"It's kind of fun because we came in together and we're still going," Ward said yesterday. "I get jacked up to see him. I try to tease him and challenge our defensive backs. He's 6-5 and has speed, he's everything a team wants to have.

"I always had tremendous respect for him as a ballplayer. People thought he was washed up in Oakland and he came back and got into a great offense with a great quarterback. He still has the skills to go out there and beat you."

The same could be said for Ward. Some thought he was on the downhill side when his average per catch dipped to the lowest of his career last season at 10.3 yards. He missed a career-high three games with injuries, and his yardage dipped to a seven-year low of 732.

A knee injury dogged him last year and, after offseason surgery, he has been healthy this season. He leads the Steelers in receptions, yards and with five touchdown catches. He is on pace for 1,044 yards, which would be the most since his Pro Bowl season of 1,163 yards in 2003.

"Hines is a complete player; he is a tough guy to play against," New England coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. "He has very good quickness, he is physical and he has tremendous strength for his position. He is a very experienced player that knows how to play and how to get open against man-coverage; he knows how to find the holes against zone."

Among the keys to Ward's effectiveness in his second decade in the league? He never was fast, so he did not have much to lose.

"I know with age people start questioning, but it's different at the wideout position," Ward reasoned. "My game has never been predicated on speed anyway. It wasn't like I was a blazing guy anyway. When a guy's game is based on speed and they lose it, they don't know how to react. A guy who doesn't have blazing speed but knows how to run routes, you can play in this game a long time."

This was supposed to be the season in which Santonio Holmes took over as the No. 1 receiver for the Steelers, but he has 15 fewer catches, 154 fewer yards and three fewer touchdown grabs than Ward.

There is no doubt that Holmes and Nate Washington remain the team's top two deep threats, but with umbrella defenses using cover-2 and cover-3 alignments against the Steelers lately, Ward is invaluable running the possession stuff over the middle.

"Hines is showing people this year it's not age, it's knowledge of the game," Washington said. "Hines prides himself on making big-time plays. We joke about him being the older guy but we know Hines is still doing a lot of things we're doing at a young age, and a lot of times he's doing some things we can't do.

"His knowledge of the game is impeccable."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he and Ward never have been as close on the field as they are this season.

"He's made me a lot better quarterback. Just the understanding and the level that we are on now, I think you'll see us communicating a lot better. You'll see us on the same page more than we've ever been, just because it's been five years together and we understand each other."

Ward vs. Moss

The Steelers' and Patriots' veteran receivers are puting up comparable numbers this season:

Ward.....Category.....Moss

54.....Receptions.....54

718.....Yards.....740

13.3.....Yards per catch.....13.7

5.....Touchdowns.....8

48.....Longest catch.....66

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Monday, November 24, 2008

It's time for Steelers' Reed to get his due

Jeff Reed, among the most accurate kickers in the league, has never been to the Pro Bowl. Maybe it's time.

Monday, November 24, 2008
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Jeff Reed celebrates with Paul Ernster after kicking a field goal in the fourth quarter against the Bengals Thursday at Heinz Field.


Not much bothers kicker Jeff Reed. Not Rob Bironas. Not Shaun Suisham. Not even the slippery surface at Heinz Field, the bane of all kickers. He has stood up to them all at various stages of his seven-year career with the Steelers, never flinching, never backing down, though occasionally slipping and sliding on his home turf.

"That's one of those things where you just kind of deal with the hand you've been dealt," Reed said. It might seem ironic to say that Reed, 29, has stood up to the challenge when sometimes he ends up on the seat of his pants. But, despite the elements he has to deal with at home, Reed has become every bit as dependable and rock-solid as the Steelers' top-ranked defense.

After being the NFL's most accurate kicker last season (23 of 25), he has continued that pace in 2008, converting field-goal attempts of 37 and 38 yards in Thursday night's 27-10 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals. That improved his season total to 18 of 19 (94.7 percent), his only miss coming in the Nov. 9 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Since the beginning of the 2007 season, Reed has converted 41 of 44 field goals, a 93.2 percent conversion that leads all NFL kickers.

"When you're kicking here, it mentally wears on you," Reed said. "I never say I'm a head-case because I'm not. That's why I can kick through this stuff. If you're a kicker in this league, you're not ever a head-case."

Reed's misses weren't just routine attempts, either.

Consider:

• A 65-yarder in Denver in Week 6 last season that was attempted on the final play of the first half, only because the Steelers were playing in rarefied air, where the ball travels farther.

• A 44-yard field goal against the Miami Dolphins in the muck and goo at Heinz Field last year, the first game played on a new sod surface that became water-logged from heavy rains and a broken tarp. "It was horrendous," Reed said. "It about hit the pylon."

• A 51-yarder into the wind on a squishy field against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago at home.

Over the years, his accuracy -- heck, his dependability -- has increased, even at Heinz Field.

"Even when it's nice in the preseason, or the first couple games of the season when Pitt plays at 6 p.m. and we play at 1 [p.m. the next day], it's torn up, and that's when it's 90 degrees outside," Reed said. "You slip, you slide, sometimes better than others. Some spots are better than others, like that Miami game last year. My first attempt was horrendous. Thank goodness Ben got sacked on the second one. It was a perfect spot."


Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Jeff Reed kicks a field goal to end the second quarter against the Chargers Nov. 16.


Not surprisingly, Reed is even more accurate on the road. Since missing a 41-yard attempt Nov. 28, 2005, in Indianapolis -- in the climate-controlled RCA Dome, no less -- Reed has missed just one field goal away from Heinz Field, and that was the 65-yard attempt in Denver.

Since the miss in Indianapolis three years ago, he has converted 35 of 36 field goals (97.2 percent) on the road, including all seven attempts this season.

Even though he has never been selected to the Pro Bowl, maybe it's time Reed is considered among the best, if not the best, kickers in the NFL.

"It's tough," Reed said. "There are 32 kickers in the NFL and probably at least 100 capable of playing at this level," Reed said. "I have friends who are just as good as me, if not sometimes better. You're like, man, how does he not have a job. And there are some guys you wonder how they keep their jobs, but they're veterans who make big kicks and that's what's important to people."

"That was always coach [Bill] Cowher's saying -- it's tough to get in the league, but it's even tougher to stay."

Reed not only has stayed, he has outlasted training-camp competitions from other young kickers brought in to challenge him. Among the candidates: Bironas, who was brought to training camp in 2004, and Suisham, a strong-legged kicker who was in training camp with the Steelers in 2005.

Bironas eventually signed with the Tennessee Titans and set an NFL record with eight field goals in a game against Houston Oct. 21, 2007. He was selected to the Pro Bowl and named to the All-Pro team last season.

Suisham has kicked for three teams since being cut by the Steelers, but he spent the past 2 1/2 seasons with the Washington Redskins. He has converted 56 of 69 field-goal attempts (81.2 percent) with the Redskins.

"Every time I've had a kicker in camp competing with me, they've made 85 percent of their field goals that I've seen. I know they're capable of kicking. I'm talking about in actual games and practice that I see them.

"[Bironas] was good at the time. That time was trying for me because that was coming off my hip surgery and they didn't know if I would be able to last. He was always consistent and strong-legged. He was a one-upper. If I hit a 50-yarder, he'd go back to 58 yards and say, 'Come back here.' I wouldn't fall into that trap. He's done very well for himself."

So has Reed.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 24, 2008 at 12:00 am



Accuracy counts

Coming into the weekend, the Steelers' Jeff Reed is among the most accurate kickers in the NFL with at least 15 field goals made.


Kicker Team FGM FGA Pct.

John Carney, Giants- 21 22 96
Jeff Reed, Steelers- 18 19 95
John Kasay, Panthers- 18 19 95
Olindo Mare, Seahawks- 15 16 94
Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots- 24 26 92
Phil Dawson, Browns- 22 24 92
Jason Elam, Falcons- 21 23 91
Joe Nedney, 49ers 18- 20 90
Neil Rackers, Cardinals- 18 20 90

Friday, November 21, 2008

More than just the night was chilly

Friday, November 21, 2008
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 20: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs for a fourth quarter touchdown past John Thornton #97 of the Cincinnati Bengals on November 20, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 27-10. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Steelers came out of their game against the Cincinnati Bengals last night with their eighth win and still in undisputed possession of first place in the AFC North Division. But there were as many questions as there was jubilation surrounding this 27-10 victory. It was not a performance befitting a team with Super Bowl ambitions.

If this is how they're going to play in their remaining five games, four of which are against teams with winning records, it's going to be a short postseason -- if there is one at all.

If the Steelers are having trouble separating from the 1-9-1 Bengals, what are they going to do against the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans -- their next four opponents -- that are a combined 28-12?

"We were by no means perfect," said coach Mike Tomlin. "We stumbled out of the gate both offensively and defensively."

With occasional snow flurries and a wind-chill factor of 23 at kickoff at Heinz Field, this was supposed to be Steelers kind of weather. This is a franchise that traditionally has been built for the days of late November and December, when the cold and the snow make it tough to pass and teams that aspire to championships must run the ball. Except the Steelers couldn't against the Bengals, who came into the game with the 23rd-ranked rushing defense in the NFL.

The Bengals lost to the Steelers by 28 points a month ago and in their next game lost to Houston by 29. They are not the kind of team that should be able to keep the game close on the road against an opponent that considers itself a Super Bowl contender. But that's what the Bengals did, trailing 10-7 at the half and 13-7 in the final minute of the third quarter.

This was a victory achieved on the quality of Ben Roethlisberger's arm and another excellent performance by what is becoming known as the best defense in the NFL. From this defense, excellence is expected. From Roethlisberger, no one was sure what to expect.

He wasn't the Roethlisberger of old last night, the one who had gained entrance into the elite level of NFL quarterbacks. But he is showing signs of that form. That was the good news, perhaps even the great news, to come out of the game.

He completed 17 of 30 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown. Most noteworthy is that he went his second consecutive game without an interception after throwing eight in the three games before that. What's more, he was throwing the ball down the field more than he had in recent games. In the first half alone, he had passes of 37 yards to Hines Ward and 27 and 22 yards to Santonio Holmes.


PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 20: Heath Miller #83 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs against Rashad Jeanty #93 and Dhani Jones #57 of the Cincinnati Bengals after a second-quarter catch on November 20, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Tomlin had suggested Roethlisberger's penchant for short passes in games against Indianapolis and San Diego was predicated by the opposing defense. That might have been part of it -- maybe even most of it -- but the suspicion lingered, and understandably so, that Roethlisberger was dinking and dunking because he was hampered by the shoulder injury that had bothered him since the first game of the season.

The injury is not fully healed and might not be so until next season.

But Roethlisberger is clearly making strides. The calls for Tomlin to bench Roethlisberger in favor of backup Byron Leftwich after the loss to Indianapolis seems pretty ridiculous today.

The Steelers had no such success in the running game, after they came in with high expectations. Not only had the Bengals been weak in stopping the run, Willie Parker returned to the lineup last week with a strong performance -- 115 yards on 25 carries. More of the same was expected.

It never materialized.

On the Steelers' first possession, Parker carried twice for 1 yard. The next time they had the ball, he carried once for 1 yard. That was followed by 2 yards on two carries and 1 yard on two carries.

For the half, Parker carried 11 times for 14 yards. He finished the game with 37 yards on 14 carries, going out early with a minor knee injury.

Mewelde Moore replaced Parker and had more success, running 15 times for 56 yards.

Tomlin maintained he was not disappointed with the running game. "I think we ended up with 120 yards. I'm disappointed that we started slowly as a football team. The run game was just a portion of it."

But against a defensive line that was ravaged by injury -- one starter missed the game and two more went down during it -- the Steelers should have been dominant from the start.

That they were not is enough to make the next four games look like a steep challenge.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 21, 2008 at 12:06 am

Holmes takes a licking, but gets offense ticking

Friday, November 21, 2008
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 20: Santonio Holmes #10 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs against Leon Hall #29 of the Cincinnati Bengals after a second quarter catch on November 20, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 27-10. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Santonio Holmes wasn't having a terribly memorable season anyway, but after last night's meeting with Cincinnati's Chris Crocker on a snowy North Side lawn, you had to wonder if he'd remember any of it.

Crocker rammed into Holmes 20 yards from the goal line at Heinz Field's open end, using the exact technique the National Football League swears it detests, full speed helmet-to-helmet, with evident malice. Though he didn't launch himself, which was the only reason Holmes was able to leave the field in any kind wobbly vertical attitude, Crocker should be scolded, fined and made to watch a continuous loop of the Bengals offense until he weeps.

Asked about the hit on his valuable deep threat, Mike Tomlin said, "I'm not going to get into anything on the officiating."

Of course, there was no flag, so that comment was telling.

This came early in the third quarter of the Steelers' methodical stone cold clubbing of the 1-9-1 visitors, who began the night missing seven starters including strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe, for whom Crocker started. The missing also included overexposed wideout Chad Ocho Cinco, who was deactivated over an apparent violation of team rules.

Wait, the Bengals have team rules?

Holmes had just come out of his break in the right slot, taken Ben Roethlisberger's fastball for his fifth catch of the night, and presumably had begun to at least ponder a move that would take him toward his first 100-yard performance of the season and some measure of atonement from the terrible game he played on this same stage just four games ago.

"I don't think it was dirty," Roethlisberger said of the collision. "I told the O-line, 'Look, don't retaliate. It wasn't dirty.' He [Crocker] didn't leave his feet. I felt bad for [Holmes]. I was the first one to him. He's a very tough receiver. He held on to the ball."

Ben's was a minority opinion. Heath Miller, split to the opposite side of the formation, heard it without seeing it. When Steelers training personnel reached Holmes, some yelled at Crocker. Craig Wolfley, the sideline reporter on the radio broadcast, described it as "helmet-to-helmet all the way. There'll be a fine."

Crocker ended his night, but if Holmes doesn't remember any of it, let's at least do him the courtesy of remembering it for him. And let's not understate it, because when this offense again showed up with no apparent purpose -- it finally broke 123 minutes and five seconds of touchdown-free football when Roethlisberger found Miller with a 3-yard scoring toss early in last night's second quarter -- it was Holmes who cleaned its fuel injectors just enough to pull away from the worst team in the AFC.

Holmes shredded Cincinnati's already tattered secondary late in the second quarter, hauling in 27- and 22-yard catches that led directly to Jeff Reed's first field goal, the one that gave the Steelers their first lead, the lead they never relinquished.


PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 20: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tries to help up Santonio Holmes #10 who took a bit hit after which he had to be helped off the field in NFL action against the Cincinnati Bengals on November 20, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 27-10. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The 10-7 halftime lead was identical to the situation in Cincinnati a month ago, but on the Steelers' first offensive opportunity after intermission, it was again Holmes who took a quick slant 19 yards into Bengals territory. Four plays later, Holmes tried the same slant, and the phone's probably been ringing in his head ever since.

He left with 84 yards on five catches, best among Roethlisberger's targets, and not until the offense seemed fully operational.

It'd be a shame if he were unable to play a week from Sunday, when the Steelers begin the brutal schedule slice that goes Patriots-Cowboys-Ravens-Titans. He might have been turning a corner on a disappointing season in which he has scored exactly one more touchdown than linebacker LaMarr Woodley, meaning two.

Against San Diego last weekend, he came out of breaks slowly and nearly cost the Steelers one of their critical field goals by staying in bounds near the end of the half. Hines Ward actually forced him out.

Tomlin wasn't ready to evaluate Holmes individually.

"As a team we go into a rhythm and did some good things offensively," said the head coach who ran his record in prime time to 5-0 this year and 9-1 overall. "Thankfully, Santonio is going to be fine. It wouldn't have been prudent to put him back in the game."

Holmes took his concussion and left the locker room under his own power.

"Yeah I'm OK," he said. "No interviews. No interviews."

So yeah, I guess he's fine.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on November 21, 2008 at 1:27 am

Only in Bengals' dreams

Will self-indulgent Chad finally heed wake-up call?

By Paul Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer
http://news.cincinnati.com/
November 21, 2008

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 20: Cedric Benson #32 of the Cincinnati Bengals gets tackled by Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during a first quarter run on November 20, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 27-10. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH - Marvin Custer came to Little Big Horn with his Triple-A club.

The Pittsburgh Steelers weren't going to blow out the Cincinnati Bengals Thursday night, because the Steelers don't have the offense to blow anyone out. But the result should have been as certain as Fort Knox for the home club.

For three quarters, it was anything but. The Bengals came in a train wreck, but they didn't play that way. Until Pittsburgh finally took a 20-7 lead with 16 seconds left in the third quarter, Cincinnati's Pluck Factor was way up there. Multiple injuries and a one-game detention for Chad Eight-Five - last seen banging his spoon on his high chair - had left Cincinnati in the fetal position.

But until Gary Russell swept in from the 2 to end the third quarter, the Bengals hung around, bless their purple hearts. At 20-7, you figured Cincinnati would need an act of God to score. And you were almost right.

(For some reason, down 13 with 7 minutes to play, M. Custer ordered a field goal on fourth down from the Pittsburgh 8. That's putting lipstick on a dead pig.)

The left side of the Bengals' line was greener than money. Rookie left tackle Anthony Collins (six snaps all season) and rookie left guard Nate Livings (none) lined up against James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, whose 21.5 combined sacks were 10.5 more than the Bengals' defense.

The Steelers defense ranks first in the NFL against the run and the pass. The Bengals offense ranked 30th when its line was together.

All these foreign names: Collins. Livings. Caldwell (Andre, made his first pro catch). John Thornton, a career interior defensive lineman, playing end after Robert Geathers hurt his knee.

Lots of try-hard happening, and while this is the NFL and not St. Cecilia's eighth-graders, trying hard was almost all you could ask from this bunch of bedraggled Bengals.

It was more than you could ask from their best-known dancer-entertainer, whose career and rep are sinking faster than the Dow. While his mates were at Heinz Field, freezing, Chad-O was at home, chilling. Most likely, he was in the living room of his condo just north of downtown Cincinnati, surrounded by the four massive oil paintings of himself.

This time, the emperor was totally and publicly disrobed.


PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 20: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws a second quarter pass against the Cincinnati Bengals on November 20, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 27-10. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The details emerged throughout the day Thursday. Chad overslept and arrived late to a meeting of the offense at the team hotel Wednesday night. Or, Chad was on time, but slept his way through the proceedings. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski told Chad to wake up and sit up straight - things you'd tell a third-grader. Chad couldn't deal with that, evidently.

He stormed out, chased by Marvin Lewis, who told him to go home. Chad was back in Cincinnati by early Thursday afternoon. Or something like that. It has always been hard to separate cold, hard fact from warm, soft coddling when Chad-O's been involved. A few things, though, have never been more clear:

Chad is a 30-year-old child. It affects everything he does. Attention means more to him than anything, including winning. His kid-ness hasn't been challenged. It has been enabled. From Mike Brown to Marvin Lewis to his mouthpiece Drew Rosenhaus - and to me and you and teammates who didn't go upside Chad's head when the moment called for it - no one has ever sent the kid to his room.

Veterans nicknamed the rookie Chad The Golden Child, for the gleaming set of 14-karat choppers he flashed before he'd ever caught an NFL pass. That name has added meaning over the years, as Johnson has been permitted by Lewis to do his own thing.

Many people have spent many years trying to keep Chad-O on the right path, Lewis not the least of them. The coach has compromised himself over the seasons, to accommodate Johnson. Lewis' action Thursday was too little, too late.

The locker room has been mixed in its feelings toward Johnson - and Lewis' enabling - at least since halftime of the playoff loss to the Steelers, in January 2006, when Johnson went nuts in a locker room that begged for cool.

Just guessing, but it probably won't be mixed now.

It's too bad about Eight-Five, because if ever an athlete held a town in his outstretched hand, it was Chad. And if ever an athlete needed love and acceptance it was The Golden Child. He is a very likeable person. Most kids are. He has entirely lost his way.

His mates could have used him Thursday night. He was far, far away. Dancing alone, around the room.

E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Steelers defense setting the pace in NFL

Wednesday, November 19, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

What goes into making a great football defense?

The numbers 1-1-1 for starters. Those are the across-the-board rankings of the Steelers' defense today. The team ranks No. 1 in the NFL against the run, No. 1 against the pass and No. 1 in fewest total yards.


Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Brett Keisel sacks Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers Sunday at Heinz Field.


No team has finished that way since the great 1991 Philadelphia Eagles defense of Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner et. al.

Some argue for that as the greatest defense ever and compare it to those of the 1976 Steelers, the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.

Only 10 games into this season, the Steelers don't want to be compared to any of the great defenses -- yet.

"It just means we're a good defense right now," end Brett Keisel said of the rankings. "We still have a lot of football left. If we finish the season 1-1-1, then maybe we can talk. Right now, we're happy where we are."

That would be in first place at 7-3 in the AFC North Division, one game ahead of Baltimore with a chance to go two up this weekend. The Steelers play the Cincinnati Bengals (1-8-1) tomorrow night at Heinz Field, while the Ravens must take on the Philadelphia Eagles (5-4-1) Sunday.

Tomorrow's matchup looks more like a mismatch on paper because that No. 1 Steelers defense must stop the worst offense in the league. The Bengals, in fact, are close to performing on offense the opposite of the Steelers defense because they are 32-30-30 -- ranked last overall and 30th in rushing and passing.

The Steelers trounced the Bengals, 38-10, Oct. 19 in Cincinnati for their widest margin of victory this season. They sacked Bengals quarterbacks seven times.

That's another stat where the Steelers rank No. 1, tied with the Eagles with 36 sacks. One more No. 1 ranking? The Steelers are the stingiest defense inside the 20, allowing only 10 touchdowns on 29 visits or a league-leading 34.5 percent.

"Since I've been here, getting turnovers is up there in importance, but the number one thing is not letting them score touchdowns," said 11-year cornerback Deshea Townsend.

The Steelers rank No. 2 with 150 points allowed, but they are No. 1 in the NFL with just 14 touchdowns against them.

But will the names of James Harrison, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, James Farrior et. al. go down in history with the likes of the Steel Curtain, Da Bears and Ray Lewis' Ravens? That depends, because there's more to sealing the deal as a great defense than rankings.

"The Super Bowl," linebacker Larry Foote explained. "Winning games and stopping offenses in January. If this team wants to be remembered as a great defense, you better win the Super Bowl, especially around here."

Hear, hear, said safety Troy Polamalu.

"Greatness has to do with winning; greatness has to do with championships," Polamalu said. "That would solidify it, I guess -- the greatness or value of our defense."

That defense has played against some of the better offenses in the league, too -- Houston (No. 5), the New York Giants (No. 4), Philadelphia (No. 6) -- and quarterbacks such as the Manning brothers, Matt Schaub, Donovan McNabb, Philip Rivers and Jason Campbell.

Rivers came to town Sunday with the second-best passer rating in the NFL at 106.3 and managed only a 43.6 against the Steelers with two interceptions and 159 yards passing.

That defense, though, must face New England and Dallas the next two weeks after they play the Bengals.

"It's not finished," Polamalu said of the story of the 2008 Steelers defense. "At this time last year, we were in the same position. It depends on how you finish the season. We got worn down last year, we got beat up and were maintaining. We'd play great the first three quarters and get blown out in the fourth. So it all depends on how we finish out the season and a playoff run."

Baltimore is the only team to finish with more than 100 yards rushing against the Steelers this season with 103 yards. Opposing quarterbacks have a 71.8 passer rating and average just 5.64 yards per attempt. The Steelers have allowed just one pass completion beyond 35 yards and just one run longer than 15 -- 22 by Clinton Portis.

The only area in which they have been a disappointment is their No. 19 ranking with only 14 turnovers.

"You can't get enough of them," Foote said.

"We would like to get more turnovers," Keisel said, "and give our offense more opportunities. I think as the weather starts changing and guys get fatigued, maybe and hopefully those types of plays will come to us."


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 19, 2008 at 12:00 am


Dominant 'D'

The top defenses in the NFL:

Rank Team PPG YPG

1. Steelers 15 238.1
2. Giants 17 265.8
3. Ravens 18 267.9
4. Redskins 18.2 276.4
5. Buccaneers 16 281.5

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Steelers should populate Pro Bowl

By John Harris
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, left, runs away from San Diego Chargers center Nick Hardwick after he intercepted a pass by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the first half of the NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008. The Steelers won 11-10.(AP)

How many Steelers defensive players should go to the Pro Bowl this year?

Given the potential historical significance of this season for the Steelers' top-ranked defense, there should be a minimum of five players -- including four with Pro Bowls already on their resumes: defensive end Aaron Smith, outside linebacker James Harrison, inside linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior and strong safety Troy Polamalu.

The first-time Pro Bowl member should be cornerback Ike Taylor, who doesn't have an interception, which seems to be the unofficial prerequisite for a cornerback to make the Pro Bowl. However, Taylor's ability to defend half of the field while taking on the opponent's top receiver has produced numerous "coverage" sacks. In 10 games this season, Taylor has allowed only one touchdown reception.

In fact, Harrison's second-quarter sack resulting in a safety in the Steelers' 11-10 win over San Diego was the result of Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson being unable to get open against Taylor, which forced quarterback Philip Rivers to hold the ball too long.

"There are 10 other guys on the field," Harrison told reporters after the game. "I just happened to be the guy that got to the quarterback."


Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley (56) and James Harrison (92) tackle San Diego Chargers offensive tackle Marcus McNeill after he recovered a fumble by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the end zone in the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008. A safety was called.

The Steelers are trying to become the first team since the 1991 Eagles to lead the NFL in total defense, passing defense and run defense. Not only do the Steelers lead the league in all three categories, they're also tied for first with 36 sacks and are second in points allowed per game (15.0).

Since 1991, a total of 11 teams have led the NFL in at least two of those defensive categories in a season. That includes the Steelers in 2001 and 2004. Both times, the Steelers lost to New England in the AFC Championship Game.

The defensive numbers the Steelers are producing have been staggering when you consider they're playing what is considered the NFL's most difficult schedule.

Running backs LaDainian Tomlinson (Chargers), Brandon Jacobs (Giants), Clinton Portis (Redskins), Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars), Joseph Addai (Colts) and Brian Westbrook (Eagles) averaged only 33.1 yards per game and 2.09 yards per carry with a total of one touchdown against the Steelers this season.

Quarterbacks Peyton Manning (Colts), Eli Manning (Giants), Rivers, Donovan McNabb (Eagles), David Garrard (Jacksonville) and Jason Campbell (Redskins) averaged 205.7 passing yards per game while completing 57.2 percent. They combined for a total of six touchdowns and five interceptions against the Steelers.

"Our goal is to stop the run," Harrison said. "We try to make you one-dimensional."

Ten games down, six to go, for the league's top defense to continue making its case as one of the best in NFL history.

John Harris is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.

Parker pushes for change back to 'Steeler football'

Tuesday, November 18, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Ed Yozwick/PG illustration and Peter Diana /PG photo

Willie Parker wants the Steelers to get back to what he calls "Steeler football." Except for one final, victorious drive against the San Diego Chargers, he said that wasn't it Sunday, not unless you count the cold and snow at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger threw 41 passes, most of them of the dink and dunk variety and none of them for a touchdown in an 11-10 victory. The Steelers ran 28 times and averaged 4.4 yards per carry with Parker gaining 115 on 25 chances.

"We have to capitalize more on the run so we can take out the passing," Parker said afterward.

The Steelers have attempted more passes than they have runs this season. The only time they've done that and had a winning record in this century came in 2002, when Tommy Maddox replaced Kordell Stewart at quarterback.

They passed more than they ran in 2006 and were 8-8. They passed more in 2003 and were 6-10. They ran more often every other season and had winning records.

It reflects the evolution of the Steelers' offense under coordinator Bruce Arians, who de-emphasized the fullback when he took over last season and put more on Roethlisberger's shoulders.

Also, Parker has missed half of the games this season with two different injuries and the man they drafted in the first round to help him, Rashard Mendenhall, played only four games before his season ended because of a broken shoulder.

Parker returned in grand fashion with his third 100-yard game of the season, but he wants more. He was not used at the goal line when Mewelde Moore ran from the 1 and lost a yard. He ran twice on third-and-1 plays in the first half, picking up the first down on one and failing on the other.

Gary Russell took over on two third downs in the second half and picked both of them up with runs of 4 and 6 yards.

"The game plan was to not put me in bad situations," said Parker, who wore a harness to protect his injured shoulder. "We didn't do that in goal line, and in a lot of short-yardage they kind of pulled me out. That was the game plan for my first game back.

"I think that was the best thing for the first game back. It's up to me if I want to keep it that way or make a change, and I'm going to make a change."

Coach Mike Tomlin may have other ideas. He liked how Russell ran on his two third-and-short tries, and it sounds as though he will give him more chances.

"Maybe we found something with Gary Russell," Tomlin said. "We will see. I think that based upon what he showed us in this football game, he is a strong candidate for that.

"Just like when given the opportunity to return kickoffs for us, he has shown us that he is a fighter in that regard. He has done some nice things for us over the past couple of weeks in expanded roles."

Parker thought only one series looked to him like "Steelers football" Sunday, and that was the last one. They drove 73 yards to put Jeff Reed in position to kick a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left to win it.

"That's the drive that really like -- just keep calling run plays, keep calling run plays," Parker said. "The defense knows we're about to run and they just can't stop it. That's Steeler football to me.

"It was really important. I think we came together for once in the game. We just made plays."


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Gary Russell might have worked his way into increased playing time with his effort Sunday against San Diego.


There weren't many running plays on that drive, though, until the Steelers reached reasonable field-goal range at the 21 after Roethlisberger completed a 13-yard pass to Santonio Holmes.

To that point, Roethlisberger had completed all six of his passes, and Parker ran twice, although a third run was called back by a penalty.

With the ball at the 21, Parker ran four consecutive times to the 4 and then ran for a touchdown that also was nullified by a penalty before Reed kicked the winner.

"I'm a running back so I love getting the ball, especially in crucial situations," Parker said. "When the pressure's on, I want the ball."

The ball, though, has been put in Roethlisberger's hands more than those of his running backs this season. And during the past two games, he has thrown mostly short passes. His average per attempt of 7.1 is a full yard below his career average.

Tomlin did not mention Roethlisberger's right shoulder -- reinjured Nov. 3 in Washington -- as a reason for those short passes, but credited the defenses the Indianapolis Colts and Chargers used.

"It was very similar to last week in the Indianapolis game because they were playing a lot of Tampa-Two," Tomlin said. "We were taking what they were giving us and playing pitch-and-catch. I thought that we did a very nice job of that."

The Steelers rank 25th in total offense in the NFL, 23rd rushing and 18th passing. Their defense today is 1-1-1 -- No. 1 overall, No. 1 stopping the run and No. 1 against the pass.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 18, 2008 at 12:00 am

It's time to recognize Harrison

Tuesday, November 18, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Steelers' James Harrison


Last season, linebacker James Harrison was a curious and wrong-headed choice by the Steelers as their MVP. He had a big year and made the Pro Bowl, but he wasn't the MVP. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was. But this season? The crime will be if Harrison isn't NFL Defensive Player of the Year. No one has been more dominant. No one has been more of a game-changer.

"A beast," teammate Larry Foote called Harrison.

Even that doesn't do the man justice.

It's not so much Harrison's 12 sacks, second-most in the NFL behind old pal Joey Porter's 13 1/2 in Miami, or his team-high 28 quarterback hurries or his four forced fumbles or the "splash play after splash play" -- coach Mike Tomlin's words -- that he continues to make, game after game. It's that he does it as the most marked man on the field.

We're talking double- and triple-team blocking.

We're also talking holding by the opponents on a lot of pass plays.

It's almost enough to make you think Harrison is unblockable one-on-one, at least legally.

"No one is unblockable," Harrison said, flatly. "There were plenty of plays [Sunday] where I was blocked."

Really?

You could have fooled me.

Probably could have fooled San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, too.

Harrison definitely wasn't blocked on one of the most significant plays in the Steelers' 11-10 victory. He took advantage of a rare, incredible mismatch with tight end Brandon Manumaleuna on a third-and-9 play from the Chargers' 3 early in the second quarter. It was cruel and inhumane punishment for the San Diego coaches to ask Manumaleuna to block Harrison without help. Harrison blew by him to the outside and crushed Rivers, forcing a fumble that resulted in a safety for the Steelers.

Maybe that play wasn't quite as huge as the one Harrison made to save the Steelers' fannies in a game Sept. 29 against the Baltimore Ravens when he sacked quarterback Joe Flacco and forced a fumble that teammate LaMarr Woodley returned for a touchdown. But it was awfully important in a one-point game. So was Harrison's interception of a horribly thrown Rivers pass from the Steelers' 17 late in the second quarter.

Splash play after splash play ...

All of this doesn't happen by accident.

"His work ethic is second to none," Tomlin said of Harrison.

"You should see him in the weight room," Foote said. "Pound for pound, he has to be the strongest guy on the team. You put that together with his speed and his mind-set and you've got an unbelievable player making spectacular plays."

Smallish size generally works against NFL players, but it works for Harrison. At 6 feet with a low center of gravity and explosive quickness, he's often impossible for big offensive tackles to handle. "He can turn the corner and he has enough power to run through and lean through contact," Tomlin said.

That's exactly how it happened when Harrison ate Manumaleuna's lunch, dinner and bedtime snack.

It's no wonder Harrison's teammates line up to push him for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. They love the season that linebacker James Farrior is having and they'll tell you defensive end Aaron Smith might be their most indispensable player. But Harrison's season is off the charts. In addition to sacking the quarterback, forcing fumbles and making interceptions, he has found the time to have 10 special teams tackles, second only to Anthony Madison (15) on the Steelers.

"It's sick what he does out there," Smith said.

"He and Joey [Porter] are battling it out, but he has to be the [defensive] MVP of the league," Foote said.

Harrison said he is "flattered" by the attention. That's a mouthful from him. When you perform the way he does, you don't have to say much about your game. It speaks for itself.

This is how consistent Harrison has been: He has had sacks in seven of the Steelers' 10 games. With six regular-season games left, he should easily shatter Mike Merriweather's team sacks record (15 in 1987) and maybe even move into the same general neighborhood as NFL sacks record holder Michael Strahan (22 1/2 in 2001).

That is one very exclusive neighborhood.

Not that Harrison acts haughty.

"I'm not going to lobby for [Defensive Player of the Year]," he said. "If it's meant to be, it's meant to be."

Harrison has something more important on his mind at the moment -- the Cincinnati Bengals, the opponent Thursday night at Heinz Field. He had a huge game against them in the Steelers' 38-10 victory Oct. 19, getting two of the Steelers' seven sacks and five quarterback hurries.

Get this: The Bengals allowed eight sacks Sunday in their 13-13 tie with the Philadelphia Eagles, but that is only the beginning of their troubles. Veteran left tackle Levi Jones was in and out of the game because of a knee problem. If he can't go Thursday night, rookie Anthony Collins probably will make his first NFL start.

Harrison will be waiting, no matter what.

For him, Thursday night can't get here soon enough.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 18, 2008 at 12:00 am

Monday, November 17, 2008

Steelers barely get it done

Monday, November 17, 2008
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Jeff Reed celebrates his winning field goal in the game's closing seconds yesterday with Jared Retkofsky at Heinz Field. It was Reed's third field goal of the game.


Willie Colon's thundering belly laugh echoed through a Steelers locker room that was rapidly emptying winners into the wintry darkness, and no other reaction was particularly valid, really, to the insanity just completed.

The Steelers got 115 yards from Willie Parker, 124 from Hines Ward, 308 off the arm of Ben Roethlisberger ... and scored no touchdowns.

"HAHAHAHA!" said Colon, approximately, upon first hearing it put that way. "I guess that's just a team that's just getting it done when they're just not getting it done."

That the Steelers won a game, 11-10, was apparently not psychedelic enough yesterday. That they ran 73 plays, rolled up 410 yards, possessed the pig for a season-high 36 1/2 minutes, and still scored no touchdowns, well, that was some kind of testament to the offense as a whole, or hole, as the case may be.

This is an offense that doesn't deserve a name as much as a title. I'm thinking "Spaeth: The Final Frontier."

Six of Roethlisberger's 31 completions went to backup tight end Matt Spaeth, just as six others did a week ago, and now the guy filling in for Heath Miller has 108 receiving yards in two weeks.

"We've been teasing Matt, telling him that he does a nice Robin, but can he do Batman," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said a few minutes after his club flipped the visiting San Diego Chargers and took back a one-game lead in the AFC North Division. "He's been driving the Batmobile pretty good."

This offense, as situated, is frankly not like any Batmobile with which I'm familiar, although it is certainly of the comic genre. Were it not for James Harrison harrying Philip Rivers into a fumble and resultant safety in the first half yesterday, we would be talking about what it feels like to go 103 minutes and 21 seconds without a touchdown on your own lawn. Doubtless 410 total net yards is nice, but how come it feels like it came on 410 total net plays?

"Part of that is our doing, and it's discouraging," Tomlin said. "We're not a finished product, but maybe we found something today in Gary Russell."


Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger couldn't find the end zone.


Russell, a second-year free agent out of Minnesota whose 39-yard kickoff return last week showed that it is apparently legal to return one beyond the 30, popped himself free for 10 yards on two short-yardage plays, something Mewelde Moore has been failing at in recent games. Moore lost 1 yard on fourth-and-1 at the Chargers' 1 as the first quarter expired yesterday.

But if Russell is the answer, or if Spaeth is the answer to why 410 yards of Bruce Arians-designed offense apparently has gotten out of the touchdown business, then the problem might be worse than it appears.

Asked that if he would throw for 300 yards, that Ward would catch more than 100 yards worth of passes, that Parker would gain more than 100 on the ground, how many points would he guess the Steelers would have accumulated yesterday, Roethlisberger didn't have to think for very long.

"You would think a lot more," Roethlisberger said. "I haven't seen the completion numbers, but it seemed like a lot of people were catching balls. Spaeth, Sean McHugh, Mewelde, you like it when you're spreading the ball around. Spaeth has done a great job filling in for, umm, for Heath."

"I've been real happy about what I've done the past two weeks," said Spaeth, who grabbed four throws that resulted in first downs in the third quarter as the Steelers labored to overcome a 7-5 deficit. "Heath is a great tight end and we need him back, but in the interim, I'm doing whatever I can to fill the void."

The Steelers tried filling the void with penalties for most of yesterday, running up a season-high 13 with a major contribution from the offense, where holding and blocking in the back were a staple, with an innovative six-men-on-the-line thrown in for spice. That likely won't happen again, but the knowledge that the offense failed to crack the goal line against a defense that had allowed three touchdown passes in a game four times this season, a defense that hasn't produced a turnover since Oct. 12, that's a little more problematic.

"We can't get caught up in, 'is this play-call right or is that play-call right,'" Colon said. "We just have to keep after it, and that's what we did. At the end, you could see it breaking down in their eyes. Key guys stepped up."

Ward caught four balls for 42 yards on the final Steelers possession, the one that chewed all but 11 seconds from the final 6:41, and Parker ran six times for 31 more. But they needed a Jeff Reed field goal to win it, and just as surely needed James Harrison and a defense that persists in its excellence.

"They've saved our butts all year," Colon said. "We're blessed to have 'em out there."

You can count your blessings in this NFL, but you can't win a division title on faith.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on November 17, 2008 at 12:00 am

A Rivers of woe at Heinz

Monday, November 17, 2008
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

James Harrison's interception late in the first half snuffed out a Chargers scoring threat and kept the score at 7-5 going into halftime.


One week, almost to the minute, after Ben Roethlisberger gave validity to the widely held belief that quarterbacks get too much credit in victory and too much blame in defeat by pronouncing himself the reason for a Steelers loss, the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers had a chance to do the same and passed.

That doesn't take Rivers off the hook.

Rivers didn't play as ugly a game in an 11-10 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field yesterday as Roethlisberger did a week earlier, but there's no denying the fact that with just slightly better quarterback play the Chargers could have won.

Instead, they took a loss to fall to 4-6, which left this one-time AFC favorite all but close to being out of playoff contention.

What a shocking turnaround for a team that at one point in the season was the favorite to win the AFC. No team in football should have taken more heart from the year-ending injury of New England quarterback Tom Brady in the first game of the season than the Chargers. They lost in the AFC title game to New England last season, and with Brady out the favorite's role fell to the them.

Although not for long. They immediately shed that role by losing their first two games. In the weak AFC West, their only hope to make the playoffs is overtaking the Denver Broncos, who hold a two-game lead and have a win against the Chargers. The West Division will not likely produce a wild-card team.

The Chargers' defense, which came into the game ranked 26th in the NFL, did its job, holding the Steelers without a touchdown. But the highly regarded offense could not take advantage.

Rivers came into the game with the second-highest passer rating in the NFL, a superlative 106.4. He has thrown 21 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions.

He met his match against the Steelers defense. His rating yesterday was 43.6, on 15 completions in 26 attempts for 159 yards and two interceptions.

It was the interception he threw late in the first half that turned the game around. Instead of taking the Chargers in for a score on a first and 10 from the Steelers' 17, he threw a pass that was intercepted by James Harrison with about 90 seconds remaining in the half. Following a 33-yard return by Harrison, the Steelers got three points on a Jeff Reed field goal by moving 54 yards in eight plays.

It was at least a six-point swing.


Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu intercepts a pass by San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008.(AP)

If that wasn't enough, earlier in the quarter Rivers committed the ultimate quarterback error by holding the ball too long in the end zone and allowing the Steelers a safety.

Forget about the six-point swing, those two points cost the Chargers the game.

On the interception, San Diego coach Norv Turner felt wide receiver Vincent Jackson was open.

"It was hard to tell where he was throwing the ball," said Turner, "but he was throwing for the back corner and the ball got away from him. I thought when the play started it was going to be a touchdown. It was the right decision to throw the ball to Vincent but it didn't get there."

Rivers said, "That's one of those you can't really explain. It stayed in my hand too long. I had Vincent there. It was just a poor throw.

"There's no other explanation for it other than the ball got away from me.

"That was another opportunity for us. We could have got a TD or at least three, it turns out they score."

The safety came early in the second quarter after the Chargers had held the Steelers on downs on their 2. On second down, from his 3, Rivers went back to pass.

"They came at us pretty good," he said. "I was trying to buy a little time. In hindsight, you wish you would have tried to get out of there and live for another day."

The man doing the hitting was the omnipresent Harrison, who forced Rivers to fumble. The fumble was recovered in the end zone by San Diego tackle Marcus McNeill, who was tackled for the safety by, of course, Harrison.

The Chargers were saying all the right things about their season.

"Our mind-set is to keep fighting," said linebacker Shaun Phillips.

Maybe there is a miracle turnaround in store for the Chargers. But if there's not, they'll remember this game in Pittsburgh and with it know just how important the play of a quarterback can be.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.
First published on November 17, 2008 at 12:00 am