Friday, October 30, 2009

Penguins bench Malkin due to shoulder strain

Friday, October 30, 2009
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin will be sidelined due to a right shoulder injury.

Coach Dan Bylsma, general manager Ray Shero and All-Star center Evgeni Malkin emerged from a closed-door meeting after practice yesterday at Mellon Arena with news of the latest injury problem for a Penguins team that so far hasn't been slowed because of missing players.

Malkin, it turns out, played the past several games -- including a 6-1 win Wednesday against Montreal in which he took six shots and registered an assist -- despite a strained right shoulder. Team officials persuaded him to shut down for what Bylsma called "a couple weeks."

"We're worried about the safety in the shoulder," Bylsma said. "A couple weeks, some rehab, some rest, we'll get that thing ready so we can get him back on the ice."

Malkin, who is tied with center Sidney Crosby for the team scoring lead with 14 points, resisted at first but acknowledged that this was the best way to handle the situation.

"It's OK. It's not the pain. I don't feel comfortable now," said Malkin, who last season was the NHL regular-season and playoff scoring champion and the playoff MVP in helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup.

"The team is playing good. It's early in the season. It's fine. Just two weeks is OK. I feel good, and it's not a big problem."

With Malkin out, Bylsma said, center Jordan Staal's ice time will increase, most likely on the power play.

"We talk about the strength of our centermen, and people talk about Jordan Staal being a second centerman on another team," Bylsma said. "That's the strength of our team, and we're fortunate we have some depth at that position.

"We have enough quality forwards that we should be able to play a little bit differently, but we still should be all right."

The Penguins recalled forward Chris Conner from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He is expected to be in Columbus for tonight's game against the Blue Jackets. Conner, who had played in 71 games for Dallas before being signed over the summer by the Penguins, caught eyes in training camp with his speed. He led Wilkes-Barre with two goals, eight points in seven games going into last night.

Malkin said he planned to travel with the club when it leaves Sunday for a 10-day, four-game trek through California and Boston.

"I'll be watching and supporting the team," he said.

The number of players doing that is mounting, even as the 10-2 Penguins keep winning.

Forward Max Talbot started the season on the long-term injury list after offseason shoulder surgery. He has stopped practicing because of a secondary foot problem and likely will not be ready to play until at least mid-November.

Malkin joins a more recent list of injured players that includes top defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who has missed the past three games because of a broken wrist and could miss another three to five weeks, and winger Tyler Kennedy, who missed the Montreal game and probably won't play tonight because of an undisclosed injury.

Bylsma did not disclose his plans for new line combinations.

"When you lose two good [forwards], it goes without saying that you have some things to fill in and some concerns about who's going to go in there, how it's going to look, what the results are going to be," Bylsma said.

The loss of Malkin and Gonchar hits the top power-play unit particularly hard. Defensemen Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang have been running the points without Gonchar, who primarily sets up the power play. It remains to be seen whether Staal will take over Malkin's spot along the right half boards or will play more in front of the net, with Crosby moving into Malkin's spot, perhaps.

"We have a lot of guys that can play on the power play," Goligoski said. "It's tough losing [Malkin] for a while, but we'll be all right."

Letang said filling the gaps is easier because of the way the power play is set up.

"It's not just about talent. It's about your work ethic, following the plan," Letang said. "Just do simple stuff and make sure we're on the same page."

Malkin probably would have remained in the lineup if allowed. He has played in every game -- 254 in a row, plus 49 in the playoffs -- since he missed the first four games of his rookie season, 2006-07, because of a preseason injury to his other shoulder.

"You don't have to worry about his courage on the ice and how he's going to play," Bylsma said. "Knowing he's been dealing with a sore shoulder, he's still been going out there and throwing body checks and gone in [traffic].

For more on the Penguins, read the new Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at Shelly Anderson can be reached at or 412-263-1721.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Crosby sticks with new approach

Friday, October 30, 2009

Sidney Crosby, goal scorer.

We are all witnessing the evolution.

With nine goals in 12 games, Crosby is off to the best start of his five-year career. He has 24 goals in his past 36 games, including the playoffs. He is on pace to score 62 this season, though it's a bit early for projections.

Some people want to attribute Crosby's hot start solely to his new, one-piece stick. Crosby is not one of them, although he acknowledges that the stick, at the very least, is symbolic of his budding scorer's mentality.

For his first four seasons, Crosby used a wooden blade, while nearly all other NHL players were using one-piece composite sticks -- made mostly of graphite -- that they believe allow for better velocity and lift on shots.

Crosby favored the wood, among other reaasons, because he could feel the puck better on his stick. He finally made the switch this past summer, partly because the wooden blades he favored went out of production two years ago (he kept a stash for last season and still has plenty left, just in case).

"If anything, I think (the new stick) has probably given me more confidence to use my shot a little more," Crosby said Wednesday, after scoring a hat trick against Montreal. "I definitely feel like I'm more likely to shoot from a little farther out than normal. In my mind, I'm not afraid to take a shot in a one-on-one now. That's important. I can't be too predictable."

Most of Crosby's goals this season, as in last year's playoffs, have been right around the bucket. Can you imagine the carnage if he ever develops an outside jumper?

Crosby figures two of his nine goals "maybe" could be attributed to the new stick, and that is significant. That would project to 10 "new-stick" goals in a 45-goal season.

In that vein, I posed the following question to Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and winger Bill Guerin: What is the ceiling on Crosby's goal potential?

Before last year's playoffs, Crosby was trending downward. He averaged 0.48 goals per game during his 39-goal rookie year. That decreased to 0.46, 0.45 and 0.43. His shots per game, too, hit a career-low of 3.09 last season but has risen to 4.2 this season.

Clearly, something changed in the playoffs. Crosby decided he needed to score if his team was going to win.

So, what's the ceiling? Keep in mind that Crosby still is only 22.

"Sid probably focused on playmaking more early in his career, and I think there was a ceiling to how many goals he could get because of that," Bylsma said. "I think now he has a different mentality and focus. He has more of a shooter's mentality. I think that lends to there not being a ceiling."

Proof of the changing mentality: Crosby registered seven or more shots just three times in 77 games last season; he's already done it three times this season.

"He puts himself in position to score all the time," Guerin said. "If he chooses to shoot more - which they've been telling him to do - he could score a ton of goals."

Back home this past summer in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, Crosby spent hours shooting pucks with a weighted one-piece stick. He poured sand down the hollow shaft in order to make it heavier.

"I have a shooting area set up in my backyard, a big concrete slab," Crosby said. "And I have a net with a big cage around it."

If he scores 40 goals this season, Crosby will raise his career total to 172, which would tie Bobby Carpenter for fifth-most in NHL history before the age of 23. Wayne Gretzky leads that list, according to Elias Sports Bureau, with a ridiculous 329 goals, followed by Dale Hawerchuk (220) and Mario Lemieux (215).

But then, when it comes to goal scoring, Crosby is just getting started. And as he put it Wednesday, "I don't want to stop."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Steelers' Clark has tough decision

Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers safety Ryan Clark could skip next week's game in Denver.

Ordinarily, I believe that an NFL player should never miss a game for any reason other than an injury or a life-threatening situation at home. The impending birth of a child? Play the game, then rush to the hospital. A death in the family? Unless there are children to comfort, schedule the funeral around the game. I know I'll be heavily criticized for those opinions, but I truly believe them. That's the way it used to be in professional sports, emphasis on the word "professional." It's the way it still should be.

Pirates great Dick Groat has told of missing the birth of his daughter, Allison, in 1963 when he was with the St. Louis Cardinals. "They wouldn't let me go home because it was late in spring training," he said. "That's just the way it was then. None of us thought twice about it. Those were the sacrifices you made to be a part of a team."

OK, not being allowed to miss a spring-training game is ridiculous. I'll give you that. I'll even acknowledge that it's ridiculous not to be allowed to miss one of 162 regular-season baseball games or one of 82 NHL games in certain situations. But an NFL game is a much different matter. There are only 16 each season. It's not as if a player can miss one and make it up. He doesn't just have an obligation to his team, which is paying him an extraordinary salary. He has an obligation to his teammates to be there with them and for them except in the direst of circumstances.

That brings us to Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who has said he hasn't decided if he'll play in the next game at Denver Nov. 9 despite not having an injury.

I'll have absolutely no problem if Clark decides to sit that one out.

Clark has a blood disorder caused by the sickle-cell trait that has attacked his organs when he exerts himself in high altitude. It was a problem for him when he played in Denver with the Washington Redskins in 2005, a much more serious problem when he played there with the Steelers in October '07. He had to be hospitalized immediately after that game and nearly died not long after he returned to Pittsburgh.

"The first speech I got from the doctors in the hospital [here] was that my lungs had filled, my kidneys were dented and my stomach was closing," Clark said in January, recalling that frightful time. "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's spleen was removed that November, his gall bladder in December. His weight dropped from 203 pounds to 170.

"A lot of people were skeptical I'd ever be able to play again," he said.

Doctors have told Clark they believe that his spleen was the problem. "Now that's gone, so we'll see," he said. He's still trying to sort through all the medical advice and probably won't make his decision about playing until early next week. If he doesn't go, Ryan Mundy and/or Tyrone Carter will fill in.

I'm guessing Clark will play in Denver as long as the docs give him an absolute assurance -- or as close to one as they can come -- that he won't have any complications. He is a guy who long ago proved his commitment to the game and the team. He didn't just come back and play last season after his near-death experience. He was a key part of the Steelers' Super Bowl odyssey.

And toughness? On two occasions last season, Clark missed just one game after his right shoulder was dislocated. That was the same right shoulder, by the way, that he led with when he put a ferocious hit on Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee in the AFC championship game in January.

Clark routinely gives up his body to make a play. Pound for pound, he might be the Steelers' hardest hitter, although some would argue for linebacker James Harrison. Clark's hit on McGahee was spectacular. So was one on New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker last season. Sunday, in the 27-17 win against the Minnesota Vikings, he drilled wide receiver Percy Harvin on a pass play over the middle, knocking the ball loose and -- for at least a second or two -- Harvin into next week.

Not that Clark was especially impressed by the Harvin hit. "Couldn't have been that good. He came back in and ran the kickoff back," he said, sniffing.

This really is a tough guy.

If Clark doesn't play in Denver, he'll have good reason.

Neither his toughness nor his commitment to the Steelers should be questioned.

He should not be second-guessed.

Ron Cook can be reached at

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Weighing in on Steelers good, not-so-good

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Steelers were given the day off following a 27-17 win over the previously unbeaten Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

When the players report to the team's South Side practice facility today, they will get treatment and watch film from the Vikings game. Coach Mike Tomlin may then tell the players to enjoy the rest of the week and that he will see them Monday.

The players have earned whatever time off Tomlin gives the Steelers during their only extended break of the regular season.

The Steelers take a four-game winning streak into their bye week. They hadn't beaten a team that had a winning record before holding off the Vikings. With the bye and almost the midpoint of the season upon us, here is a look at what has gone right so far — and what the 5-2 Steelers need to fix:

The good

• Ben Roethlisberger has continued his ascent.

The two-time Super Bowl champion is second in the NFL in passing yards (2,062) and is completing more than 70 percent of his throws.

Roethlisberger continually rewards Bruce Arians for the trust the offensive coordinator has placed in him. The sixth-year veteran is seeing the field as well as ever, and Roethlisberger has taken full advantage of the playmakers the Steelers have at the skill positions.

He is on his way to a record-setting season as well as a Pro Bowl one.

• The offensive line has shown marked improvement.

The group's detractors were out in full force after the o-line was pushed around in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans. Since then, the offensive line has quietly turned into an effective and cohesive unit.

In their past six games, the Steelers have averaged 119 rushing yards and 4.4 yards per carry.

If the Steelers can continue to run the ball effectively, it will make Roethlisberger and the passing game that much harder to stop.

• The defense has generally played at a high level.

No, it hasn't been as dominant as it was a year ago when it finished first in the NFL in scoring, total and passing defense.

But James Harrison is on pace to break the Steelers' single-season record for sacks (16), a mark he established a year ago. Meanwhile, no team has been able to run the ball consistently against the Steelers, who are second in the NFL in rushing defense (76.6 yards per game).

They have faced three of the top five rushers in the NFL — Cedric Benson, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson — and none has gone over 100 yards against the Steelers.

Needs work

• The kick coverage team needs some improving.

Whatever problems the Steelers solved in this aspect of special teams last season have re-surfaced. The Steelers have allowed kickoff return for touchdowns in back-to-back weeks. And in the NFL, where the difference between good teams is super-model thin, a special-teams gaffe could prove costly down the road.

Coach Mike Tomlin will spend at least part of the down time during the bye week identifying what is causing the leaks on the kickoff coverage team.

"I'm going to get it fixed," he said, "whether it's schematics, people or both."

• Rashard Mendenhall's ball security has been a concern.

His teammates made him carry a football at all times when he was at the Steelers' practice facility during preseason in 2008. Maybe it's time for them to mete out the same punishment following costly fumbles by Mendenhall in back-to-back games.

The turnovers have overshadowed the significant step Mendenhall has made since becoming the Steelers' starting running back. He is averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry and has four rushing touchdowns.

But if he can't hang onto the ball, he is going to find himself on the sidelines at the end of games — as Mendenhall did against the Browns and the Vikings.

• Getting off the field.

The defense needs to create more turnovers — the Steelers have three more giveaways than takeaways — and it needs to do a better job on third down.

Opponents' conversion rate on third down is 43.3 percent this season, compared to 31.4 percent in 2008. Prior to LaMarr Woodley's 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the defense had allowed the Vikings to convert three times on third down — once when Minnesota needed 18 yards to move the chains.

The X-factor

• Injuries have played a significant part already this season.

The Steelers already have lost defensive end Aaron Smith (shoulder) for the season. They were also without strong safety Troy Polamalu for four games because of a sprained knee from which he is still recovering.

Outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has injured both ankles, and defensive end Travis Kirschke, whose back is always a concern, hurt his lower leg against the Vikings.

If the Steelers can weather injuries, there is no reason to think they can't mount a serious run at defending their Super Bowl title.

And they appear to have righted themselves following a 1-2 start.

"We're stacking wins," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "In the month of November, we're heading in the right direction."

Pirates' McCutchen cops BA's top rookie

By Rob Biertempfel, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Andrew McCutchen's rookie season with the Pirates went about as well as he could have hoped.

"There's nothing I would change," McCutchen said Monday. "There are a few things I'll fine-tune this winter and get better at, but as far as how I did during the season, it all was good."

The analysts at Baseball America agreed, as they named McCutchen the magazine's major league rookie of the year.

"It's a great honor," McCutchen said by phone from his home in Lakeland, Fla.

McCutchen, 23, batted .286 with 12 home runs, 54 RBI and 22 stolen bases. He topped National League rookies with 47 extra-base hits and ranked second in multi-hit games, runs, walks and total bases.

The Pittsburgh chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America voted McCutchen the Pirates' MVP.

Voting for Major League Baseball's major awards, including Rookie of the Year, is conducted nationally by the BBWAA. Ballots are submitted before the end of the regular season, and the winners are announced after the World Series.

McCutchen and Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones — whom Baseball America also named to its all-rookie team — are generally considered among the top candidates for the National League rookie award. Also in the running are Florida Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan, Milwaukee Brewers infielder Casey McGehee and pitchers Tommy Hanson of Atlanta and J.A. Happ of Philadelphia.

"Whatever happens, happens," McCutchen said. "I did all I could, and it's up to (the voters) to make the decision. We'll see. For now, I'm happy to take the Baseball America award."

Only two times in the past 10 years has Baseball America's choice not been one of the two league Rookies of the Year selected by the baseball writers.

In 2004, Baseball America selected San Diego shortstop Khalil Greene, while the writers voted for Pirates left fielder Jason Bay and Oakland shortstop Bobby Crosby.

In 2003, the magazine tabbed Arizona pitcher Brandon Webb, while the media honored NL pitcher Dontrelle Willis and AL shortstop Angel Berroa.

This winter, McCutchen will train in Lakeland. He also plans to work out with left fielder Lastings Milledge, who grew up in Palmetto, Fla., a 20-minute drive from Pirate City.

Notes: The Pirates requested outright waivers on reliever Tyler Yates, who then opted for free agency. Yates missed most of last season after having reconstructive elbow surgery. There are 38 players on the 40-man roster, plus pitchers Evan Meek and Jose Ascanio, who both are on the 60-day disabled list.

Steelers' Wallace making most of opportunity

Tuesday, October 27, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They said Steelers rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace could run fast, but this is ridiculous. This kid has run from a dismal past to a bright future so quickly that it almost defies belief. It seems a shame he's going home to New Orleans this weekend for what figures to be nothing more than a quiet visit with family and friends during the Steelers' off week. They should throw a parade for him through the city's streets because he's the perfect example of what hard work, a burning desire to succeed and, yes, that extraordinary speed can accomplish.

What a great, positive, uplifting story.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace leads all rookies with 21 catches and 368 receiving yards.

David Johnson, Wallace's coach at O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans, predicted all of this for Wallace when the Steelers made him a third-round choice in the April draft. "Believe me, this kid won't take this opportunity for granted."

It seemed like just so much hype at the time. Not now.

From the beginning, Wallace did everything right. He learned the Steelers' complicated offense. He watched veterans Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes -- each a Super Bowl MVP -- to see how they carried themselves and went about their business. He did his work and kept his mouth shut, the way all rookies should, especially on a Super Bowl team. He caught just about everything thrown to him. He stayed out of trouble. He limited his splash plays to the field instead of taking them to parking lots outside of bars. He didn't tussle with any cops.

"This is a perfect situation for me," Wallace said after playing another huge role in the Steelers' 27-17 victory Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings at Heinz Field.

"There are a lot of guys here with a lot of pressure on them. I'm not one of them. I don't have to be 'The Guy.' That makes it a lot easier for me to just go out and play.

"I'm just trying to carry my weight. Hines, Santonio, Ben [Roethlisberger], they're the playmakers on this team. I'm just happy I can be a part of it. There can't be any drop-off when the ball comes to me."

Wallace's 22-yard catch and 40-yard touchdown on the same drive against the Vikings were his latest big plays. There were 29- and 21-yard catches against the Cleveland Browns as well as a 21-yard run on an end-around play. There was a 47-yard touchdown catch against the Detroit Lions. There was a 35-yard catch against the San Diego Chargers to set up a touchdown. There was a seven-catch, 102-yard performance against the Cincinnati Bengals, including a 51-yard reception. There was a 22-yard catch against the Tennessee Titans in overtime to set up the winning field goal.

Carrying his weight? Wallace could be nose tackle Casey Hampton's size, and I would say the same thing.

"I'm not surprised at all," Wallace said. "I feel I can compete in any situation. I know my ability. I'm just glad the coaches are giving me the opportunity to show it."

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians aren't fools. They learned quickly that Wallace's game is a lot more than just his 4.28-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He's more dependable than disappointing Limas Sweed, the team's No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft. The NFL stage isn't the least bit too big for Wallace. Roethlisberger sees that, too. He doesn't hesitate to throw to him in big spots.

Something Wallace said on draft day is instructive.

"I'm proud of myself for staying focused and not letting the negative stuff bring me down."

Wallace's brother, Reggie, went to jail on drug charges. A half-brother, Arnold, was shot to death. A good friend, Jamal Dorsey, also was shot and killed in an incident in which shots were fired at Wallace's sister, Jahlisa, who wasn't hit.

"I didn't want to be another statistic on the streets," Wallace said.

Just about everybody says that. A lot fewer make the commitment that Wallace did to make something of his life. He deserves tremendous credit for getting to college at Mississippi and taking advantage of his opportunities there before taking the next big step to the Steelers.

Here are two statistics that Wallace loves having associated with his name: His 368 receiving yards on 21 catches are the most among NFL rookies and his 17.5 yards-per-catch average is best among rookies with at least 20 receptions.

Believe me, this kid won't take this opportunity for granted ...

If there's one thing Wallace needs to work on, it's his touchdown celebration. He did a flip into the end zone Sunday. "I'd give it about an 8. I need to work on my elevation," he said, grinning.

Funny line, sure. But no one would have been laughing if Wallace had injured his shoulder doing such a silly stunt. He'll learn. He'll figure out it's a lot better to act as if he has scored a lot of touchdowns. You know, act like you've been to the end zone before.

Wallace figures to get plenty of practice scoring touchdowns before his career is done. He doesn't just have that kind of ability. He has that kind of desire.

Ron Cook can be reached at

Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers and Gerry Dulac's Steelers chats are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

First published on October 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Steelers' defensive scores make up for mistakes

Monday, October 26, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley picks up a loose ball in front of Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the fourth quarter. Woodley ran the ball back for a touchdown.

Funny thing is Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley actually thought he would escape ridicule from his teammates yesterday after toting the football 77 yards in what seemed like 2 1/2 minutes to score the most unlikely defensive touchdown we've seen around here since, well, Super Bowl Sunday.


"We don't have any Adrian Petersons on our defense. We're not going to make 11 guys miss when we run one back. We have to block for each other," safety Ryan Clark said.

"Being that LaMarr weighs 370 pounds, he needed a little more help to get to the end zone."


I mean, really, Woodley can't weigh a pound over 300.

"Did he really say that?" Woodley asked, rolling his eyes.

Hey, it could have been a lot worse on a day the Steelers made it clear they're still very much of a mind to defend their Super Bowl title with vigor by toppling the previously unbeaten Minnesota Vikings, 27-17, for their fourth consecutive win.

"I was just thinking, 'Legs, get me there,' " Woodley said. "At one point, I looked to my left and saw an offensive lineman coming. I'm thinking, 'I can't let this guy catch me or I'll never hear the end of it.' I didn't want to be embarrassed watching it on film."

Of course, none of the Vikings caught Woodley after he scooped up a fourth-quarter fumble by quarterback Brett Favre, who was stripped of the ball on a marvelous effort by defensive end Brett Keisel. Just when it seemed the Vikings were going to tie the game or take the lead, the Steelers took command, 20-10.

The Vikings also couldn't catch linebacker Keyaron Fox late in the game after he intercepted a Favre pass and returned it 82 yards for the most unlikely defensive touchdown we've seen around here since, well, Woodley's return about 15 minutes earlier. Just when it seemed the Vikings were going to tie the game or take the lead, the Steelers scored the clinching touchdown.

"My first thought was to get down and let our offense run out the clock," Fox said. "Then I thought, 'I can't turn down this opportunity to be a hero.' I took full advantage of that ...

"I think Ziggy [Hood] was the first guy to get to me in the end zone. We just kind of looked at each other and it was like, 'Yep, that'll do it.' "

Sure did.

The two splash plays by the defense -- the first time the Steelers scored two defensive touchdowns in a game in almost 11 years -- were enough to cover a plethora of Steelers' mistakes, including four -- count 'em, four -- offsides penalties on that very same defense. Nose tackle Casey Hampton must have had an exceptionally big breakfast. How else do you explain the Big Snack's big belly edging into the neutral zone three times?

But those penalties weren't as costly as the pass interference call on tight end Heath Miller that wiped out a first-quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes. They also weren't as hurtful as running back Rashard Mendenhall's fumble at the Vikings' 4 in the fourth quarter and the 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by the Vikings' Percy Harvin midway through the final quarter. That's two such kickoff returns in two games against the Steelers, if you're counting, which coach Mike Tomlin certainly is. "We better fix it and fix it in a hurry," he growled.

Clearly, the Steelers' defense won this game, doing an admirable job against the great Favre and Peterson, an All-Pro running back. The defense probably didn't need the second-quarter help from the Vikings' coaches, but the fellows weren't about to turn it down. After Peterson was stopped for no gain on first-and-goal from the Steelers 1 by Fox, Favre threw two incompletions, forcing the Vikings to settle for a field goal.

"You have the best running back in the world and you don't run it. You throw the ball," an appreciative Clark said. "That shows respect for our front seven."

"Maybe they showed too much respect for us," linebacker James Farrior said, grinning.

Regardless, it felt mighty good to a Steelers defense that was bashed by so many of us after blowing late leads in losses to the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals. You probably won't be surprised to know that Clark wasn't shy about mentioning that.

"We were written off so fast, so early. Guys forgot who we were as a defense, who we are as a defense. It's the same guys, the same competitors."

This stand -- considering the caliber of competition -- was one of the defense's better ones. It's especially noteworthy because it came without terrific defensive end Aaron Smith (season-ending shoulder injury) and, late in the game, without his backup, Travis Kirschke (calf) and linebacker Lawrence Timmons (ankle). Nick Eason and Hood took over for Kirschke, Fox for Timmons.

"I hope I didn't let anybody down," Fox said. "Just let the standard be the standard."

Fox upheld it and then some.

No wonder Tomlin greeted him on his way to the locker room with a big smile, a firm handshake and a hearty pat on the back.

"Way to answer the bell," the coach told Fox.

On this day, everybody on the defense did.

Ron Cook can be reached at

Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers and Gerry Dulac's Steelers chats are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

First published on October 26, 2009 at 12:00 am

More no-huddle, please

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ten takes on the Steelers' 27-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings:

• The Steelers used their no-huddle offense for one series — an eight-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that took all of 75 seconds at the end of the first half. Why abandon it? The no-huddle can't be used exclusively, but as receiver Mike Wallace said: "When Ben (Roethlisberger) is calling his own plays, he's great out there. He looks at the defense and picks them apart. That's one of the things that separates him and makes him great." Roethlisberger made the call on the 40-yard touchdown pass to Wallace. It was the same call, Wallace said, as his 22-yard catch two plays earlier.

• Rashard Mendenhall apparently mistook the 5-yard line for the goal line early in the fourth quarter, leaping for no reason. He fumbled and was subsequently replaced — deservedly — by Mewelde Moore. Mendenhall, who said running backs coach Kirby Wilson made the call to replace him, is convinced he will remain the starter. "I don't think that changed," Mendenhall said. If he fumbles again next game, it might.

• Coach Mike Tomlin was asked if putting Moore into the game had to do with Mendenhall's fumble. "It did and it didn't," he said. Mendenhall was asked if he was disappointed to be taken out. "Yes and no," he said. Thanks, guys.

• Beautiful end-zone somersault from Wallace, wasn't it? It looked like he took off from the 3. "Everybody gave me grief when I scored in Detroit," Wallace said. "They told me I didn't do a good enough celebration, so I gave 'em a little flip." LaMarr Woodley had some celebration ideas at the end of his 77-yard fumble return, too. "I thought about doing a dance," Woodley said, "and my body wouldn't let me."

• Hines Ward didn't seem overly pleased after the game, even if he likes to win more than anything. Ward caught a pass for the 169th consecutive game but finished with just that catch, for three yards, and was targeted only three times. He dropped a pass when he was hammered in the back by Karl Paymah. "They did some good things to take me away," Ward said. "It helped open up other areas, like Mike Wallace scoring. (Two linebackers) were messing with me in the slot, and it enabled Mike to get down the field against their Cover 2."

• William Gay held up fairly well as a focal point of Minnesota's game plan. He did not, however, hold up well in a collision with Adrian Peterson on a 29-yard pass play in the fourth quarter. "He can't be human," Gay said. "Dude's made of steel."

• For the most part, the Steelers made Peterson look human. He came in with a career average of 5.16 yards per attempt, highest in league history through 36 games. The Steelers held him to 69 yards and 3.8 per carry, easing concerns about how they would hold up in the run game without Aaron Smith.

• Can you believe the Vikings had a first-and-goal at the 1 and twice ignored Peterson to try passes? Hideous play-calling by coordinator Darrell Bevell — and the Vikings' failure to cross the goal line there went a long ways toward the loss.

• No word on whether Jeff Reed and his entourage headed over to McFadden's for some post-game revelry.

• I wouldn't mind seeing these two teams go at it again. How about Feb. 7 in Miami?

More Columnist Joe Starkey headlines
Starkey: Opportunity knocks for Pitt
Starkey: Pitt's little big man
Starkey: Steelers justice hard to figure
Starkey: Comedy of errors at Heinz Field
Starkey: BCS charade begins today
Starkey: MLB 'parity' a sham
Starkey: NFL QB rules boggle the mind

Starks puts Allen on sack diet

Monday, October 26, 2009

This was the game you figured Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would give left tackle Max Starks plenty of help.

Minnesota Vikings All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen, who embarrasses offensive linemen and devours quarterbacks, came to Heinz Field on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon to face his offseason workout buddy and pad his gaudy stat line. Allen departed with no sacks and the Vikings' first loss as the Steelers took an exciting 27-17 win.

In the end, it didn't matter that the Steelers' defense scored more touchdowns than the Steelers' offense, or that Minnesota dominated time of possession by 13 minutes.

All that matters to Tomlin is that the Steelers improved to 5-2 while toppling Minnesota from the unbeaten ranks.

All that matters to Starks is that he did his job so well that he held Allen, who entered the game ranked third in the NFL with 7.5 sacks, to no sacks.

"We train together," Starks said. "He's a regular guy to me. He's just Jared. You step up your game to play against him. He's a challenge because he's always going and going and going. He's a high-energy guy."

The Steelers trusted Starks so much that, with the exception of a couple of pass plays where they slid a tight end to his side, they allowed their left tackle to block Allen one on one.

That's showing confidence in a player the Steelers didn't seem to want before they finally got around to re-signing him during the offseason.

"I always knew I had it," Starks said. "I moved from right tackle to left tackle, and I had to change what I do as far as my footwork and mentality because you're getting a quicker guy as opposed to a stronger guy."

Defensive ends don't come much quicker, or stronger, than Allen, an absolute beast who recorded 14.5 sacks last season in his first year with the Vikings.

Since being drafted in 2004, Allen's 65 sacks are the most in the NFL.

So how did Starks fare against Allen on Ben Roethlisberger's gorgeous 40-yard touchdown pass to rookie Mike Wallace late in the first half?

Starks took Allen completely out of the play, giving his quarterback time to pick out an open receiver.

Maybe that's why Starks was the first player that Roethlisberger approached after the play. Starks reciprocated by lifting his quarterback high in the air.

"(Allen) tried to sprint upfield, cut the corner on me," Starks said. "I got a great punch on him. He tried to stop and re-set his feet. I just locked him up and held him there.

"I looked up, and Ben made a clean throw. I guess he knew it was a good play (by the offensive line). I just wanted to hold him up. We were excited. We've been here six years together. The emotion just takes over."

Starks gave himself a B-minus grade against Allen, who thought the Vikings' defense did its job.

"There isn't much you can do," Allen said. "We held them to 13 points, and that should be enough to win."

Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz, who visited the Steelers' locker room after the game, took a special interest in Starks' performance against Allen.

Munoz practiced against Starks' father, Ross Browner, when they were teammates with the Cincinnati Bengals. Munoz has followed Starks' career for a long time.

"I thought he did a good job," Munoz said. "For a big guy, he gets out there in good position.

"I'm not enamored by size. I'm enamored by technique and how quickly you can get out in your position. I thought Max did a good job getting out there in space."

That's why the Steelers finally decided to pay Starks the big bucks.

More Columnist John Harris headlines
Harris: Kirschke fills in nicely
Harris: This series is improbably lopsided
Harris: Give Holmes benefit of the doubt
Harris: Big Ben finally gets elite treatment
Harris: Steelers defense must stay hungry
Harris: Tough Tomlin gets positive results
Harris: Roethlisberger, line relish tight bond

Favre vs. Big Ben ... A rare Sunday

Sunday, October 25, 2009
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When they went to Green Bay to play Brett Favre and the Packers at Lambeau Field during their 2005 Super Bowl season, Hines Ward, Charlie Batch and several other Steelers players brought along jerseys and pictures to get autographed by the quarterback icon, thinking they might never see him again. At the time, Favre was 36 and seemingly nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career in which he would hold nearly every significant passing record in the National Football League. Four years later, Favre returns to Pittsburgh for the first time in 11 years, this time with the Minnesota Vikings, and the line for the autograph seekers and picture-takers at Heinz Field might stretch to the Warhol Museum. And that's just among the Steelers.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers defensive end Nolan Harrison wasn't impressed by Brett Favre's legacy on Favre's most recent regular-season visit to Pittsburgh on Nov. 9, 1998. The Steelers defeated Favre and the Packers in a Monday night game at Three Rivers Stadium, 27-20.

"Now that he's coming to Pittsburgh and we don't have to take the stuff on the plane, you might see guys coming to the game with a book bag they don't normally have," Batch said. "They're going back home, looking at what they have, and anything with 'Favre,' they might bring it to the stadium to get signed."

Even Ben Roethlisberger, who has never met Favre, might get in on the act.

"I'll probably get a picture or ask if we can swap jerseys and get an autograph," Roethlisberger said.

It is not very often a larger-than-life athlete comes to town, especially in a game that carries such national intrigue. But, make no mistake, it will happen today when the 40-year-old Favre -- the NFL's greatest ironman -- and the unbeaten Vikings (6-0) meet the Steelers (4-2) in a 1 p.m. game that has more subplots and storylines than a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

Adding to the moment is a first meeting with Roethlisberger, a player with similar guile and gunslinger tendencies who grew up worshipping the Golden Brett. In the pantheon of Pittsburgh sports, it might not be a stretch to compare the moment -- legend vs. new star -- to Nov. 6, 1984, when Wayne Gretzky came to the Civic Arena to play against Mario Lemieux for the first time.

Even though they were only four years apart in age, Gretzky was already in his seventh professional season and had won four NHL scoring titles when Lemieux was a rookie.

"This is the all-time passer, the all-time great, this is it," said Batch, who started the 2005 game in Green Bay while Roethlisberger stayed at home with an injury. "He is the so-called best. He's got the numbers and he's got the championship to go with it. He could be, for opinion's sake, the best quarterback ever."

Roethlisberger, 27, grew up worshipping five quarterbacks -- Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Favre, in that order. He copied Elway's number and has already matched him in Super Bowl victories (two). But, more than any of the others, he emulated Favre's daring style.

Now, he gets to play against him. And it's not some celebratory farewell tour, either.

"I wanted to just kind of have that same mentality to go out and always play fearless," Roethlisberger said. "You see him run the ball and taking hits, not getting down. Just being able to sling it [like him]. I try to be able to do a little of what he does."

Defying age

Roethlisberger is off to a Favre-like start, the best of his six-year career. He leads the NFL in passing yards (1,887), yards per attempt (9.1) and passes of 20 yards or longer (26) and ranks second only to Peyton Manning in completion percentage (72.5).

But Favre, who holds NFL all-time records for completions (5,844) passing yards (66,474), touchdowns (476) and victories (175), isn't far behind, despite his age. He leads the NFC in completion percentage (69.7), ranks second in passer rating (109.5) and has thrown more touchdowns passes (12) and fewer interceptions (2) than Roethlisberger. His average of 224.5 yards passing per game is just 17 yards fewer than his career per-game average (241.7) as a starter.

Even more remarkable is that Favre hasn't missed a start since his first season in Green Bay in 1991, a league-record 275 games in a row, 297 counting playoffs. His consecutive game streak recently eclipsed the old record of former Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall (270).

"At this position, that's unbelievable," said Roethlisberger, who has missed eight starts in six seasons. "A lot of it is toughness, but I'm sure he'll tell you a lot of it is luck. You have to get lucky, especially in this sport where guys are rolling into you, hitting you. Any little thing can happen."

If that isn't enough, Favre has shown he still has the magic to author fourth-quarter comebacks and incredible moments. He has done it twice this season with remarkable throws, none more amazing than the back-of-the-end-zone pass to Greg Lewis to beat the San Francisco 49ers.

"How can a guy throw that on a rope from 40 yards at 40 years old?" asked ESPN analyst and former quarterback Ron Jaworski, the awe apparent in his voice on the phone the other day.

Jaworski played 17 seasons with four different teams in the NFL, most of them with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was 38 when he played his final season with the Kansas City Chiefs. By the time he was 35, he said he knew he couldn't make the same throws as when he was 30.

Not Favre.

"He's a freak of nature," Jaworski said. "When you watch him play at that level, at 40 years old, that's the only explanation."

Like most people around the NFL, Jaworski thought Favre had reached the end of his brilliant career last season when he badly faltered in his final five games with the New York Jets, going 1-4 and throwing nine interceptions and for only two touchdowns. It was later discovered that Favre was playing with a torn bicep tendon in his throwing shoulder that eventually required arthroscopic surgery.

Nonetheless, it had become a recurring pattern for Favre, who had been watching his production nose-dive late in the season for each of the past five years.

"When the Vikings signed him, we wanted to go see him live, we wanted to see what was left of that arm, what was left of that body, because, quite frankly, it ended badly in New York," Jaworski said. "I was blown away when we went to practice and watched him throw the football. From what I saw from the end of last year to that practice, the way he would spin the ball out of his hand with accuracy, it was amazing."

Pitch count

After 297 consecutive starts that have caused immeasurable wear and tear on his 40-year-old body, can Favre still conjure his magic after Thanksgiving?

Recent history suggests he can't.


In the first 11 games of the 2004 through 2008 seasons, Favre completed 64.8 percent of his passes with 97 touchdowns, 61 interceptions and an 89.1 passer rating in 55 games. In the last five games of each of those seasons (plus three playoff games), he completed 57.9 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns, 46 interceptions and a passer rating of 66.3 in 28 games.

Even in 2007, during an MVP-like season with the Packers, Favre faltered in the final month, especially in cold-weather conditions that, for much of his career, never seemed to bother him. He threw two interceptions on a blustery, wintry day in Chicago in a 35-7 defeat and two more in a frigid NFC Championship game loss to the New York Giants at Lambeau Field, the final one on his first possession of overtime that led to the winning field goal.

The Vikings, though, are hoping that playing indoors in the Metrodome will prevent that trend from recurring. After next week's ballyhooed homecoming game in Green Bay, Favre's only game in a cold-weather city will be Dec. 28 in Chicago.

But that isn't the only solution.

People who are aware of Favre's troublesome throwing shoulder say he has problems beyond the torn bicep tendon that orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews repaired in May. Those problems will cause his arm to deteriorate from overuse as the season progresses. The only way to prevent that is to limit the amount of time he practices, or even plays, something Favre has already suggested.

Even Jaworski said Favre should be "on a pitch count."

"The chances of any player playing consistently 16 games, not even talk about a career but just in one season, is tough," Favre said. "But you know what? It's like the way I played the other day. I'm going to get hit. If I have to block, I'll block. If I have to tackle, I'll tackle. Can I guarantee I'll get up every time? Who can? But I feel pretty good about it."

That's why he's Brett Favre.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at

Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers and Gerry Dulac's Steelers chats are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

First published on October 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Steelers' Hines Ward leads the NFL in receiving at the age of 33

Thursday, October 22, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On a gorgeous fall afternoon, Hines Ward left his workplace yesterday with a good three hours of sunlight remaining. Enough to get in a little golf?

"No," Ward, 33, said. "I'm going to go sleep in my hyperbaric chamber. It's my fountain of youth."

Who could argue? Ward not only is off to the fastest start of his 12-year career with the Steelers, but he also is atop the NFL receiving statistics this week. No Steelers receiver has ever led the league, but more than a third of the way through this season no one has more than Ward's 599 yards. He and Steve Smith of the New York Giants are tied for the league lead with 41 receptions.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Who would have imagined after six weeks of the season that Hines Ward would lead the NFL in receiving yards and be tied in receptions?

At that rate, he'll catch 109 passes for nearly 1,600 yards.

"I would hope people would be proud of me," Ward said. "There's a guy 33 years old leading the league."

Ward earlier exposed the myth that a Steelers receiver could not break into the top echelon in the league when he caught 112 passes for 1,329 yards in 2002, both team records.

But that occurred when he was 26. Who saw this coming? Part of it has to do with coordinator Bruce Arians' open-air attack, part to the no-huddle offense, part to Ben Roethlisberger and also to Ward's ability to, well, stay young and healthy.

"I'm having the best time of my life," he said. "I'm having fun. This is definitely fun. I look forward to Sundays."

Ward kept the hyperbaric oxygen chamber that he credits with helping him return from a sprained MCL in his knee to play in the Super Bowl two weeks after it was injured in the AFC championship game. He said he gets into the thing four times a week, for preventive medicine, a.k.a. his fountain of youth.

He also had rotator cuff surgery on a shoulder after the 2008 season, but he's playing like new today.

"This is great. I'm having the most fun I had in 12 years because when I was younger, it was all about the stats and trying to make the money. Got the money, made the Pro Bowls. When I got closer to 10,000 yards that was like a milestone. I said if I get 10,000 I'm going to retire."

Of course, that did not happen after he hit 10,000 career yards this season. He's signed through 2012 and believes he could make it to the end of that contract.

"I'm still here," said Ward, who credits coach Mike Tomlin for giving him Wednesdays off at practice as another tonic. "When I retire is the day when I watch on film and say the Hines I know can beat this guy and then I can't get open on this guy. Then I'm done, because I don't want to end on that note. I want to go out on top."

He's on top of the NFL now. It looked as if the only Steelers receiver to have four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons would experience no more when he dipped below 1,000 between 2005-07, to a low of 732. But he rebounded with 1,043 yards last season and is blowing that away today.

His yards per reception also has increased, by nearly 2 yards over last season to 14.6, which would be the highest of his career as a starter.

"Not bad for a guy without speed, right?" Ward said.

He always has been somewhat of a possession receiver, playing next to deep threats such as Plaxico Burress and then Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington and now rookie Mike Wallace. But with the no-huddle has come some deeper routes for Ward, who has the team's longest reception of the season, a 52-yard touchdown against Cleveland, and another of 41 yards.

"People ask how long I will play, I don't know how long. It's just a great feeling to go out there and help contribute. All the guys -- Heath [Miller] is catching TDs and his stats are right up there, Santonio is on pace for 1,000 yards. Mike Wallace is coming in and giving us great splash plays. Ben is having a Pro Bowl year.

"It's great to be part of that mix because I wasn't supposed to be in the mix being I was 33."

Parker OK with No. 2, for now

Willie Parker won't argue with Tomlin's decision to give Rashard Mendenhall the brunt of the carries Sunday.

"He's the coach, he has to make a decision and live with it. He thinks that's the best for our offense right now and pretty much I have to prove him wrong. I'm cool with it."

Parker carried only seven times last Sunday after missing the previous two games with turf toe. Mendenhall has started the past three games and rushed for 304 yards and four touchdowns.

"I'm not all the way back," said Parker. "I'm not Willie Parker, I'm not myself right now."

Spaeth's splash play

Tight end Matt Spaeth apologized yesterday for getting into trouble with the law that helped spark teammate Jeff Reed's arrest Sunday night outside of McFadden's near Heinz Field.

Spaeth was cited for public urination. "I apologized for the distraction that it caused both to the organization and to my teammates," he said.

For more on the Steelers, read the new blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at Ed Bouchette can be reached at

Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers and Gerry Dulac's Steelers chats are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

First published on October 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Penguins' Crosby finds way to keep improving

Tuesday, October 20, 2009
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has won 60 percent of his faceoffs this season.

Sift through NHL statistics, and you can see tangible evidence of Sidney Crosby's improvement on faceoffs.

As a rookie in 2005-06, the Penguins' center won 45.5 percent of his draws. The next season, it was 49.8. He jumped to 51.4 percent in 2007-08, plateaued a bit last season at 51.3 percent and, through eight games this season, has been among the best in the NHL at 60 percent going into the game tonight against St. Louis.

Those numbers are easy to track. What's more complicated is tracking how Crosby has made improvements in his game since arriving as a highly skilled, highly promoted 18-year-old.

"It's more of a constant, consistent mindset of just working on things," Crosby said.

You don't have to tell that to his teammates, who see a multi-faceted agenda from him at each practice.

"He's constantly working on stuff," said winger Matt Cooke. "He'll want guys to go out and work him on the half-wall or work him down low on the power play. If we're doing extra work, he's one of the guys there participating.

"He's definitely got the drive and the desire to better himself every day."

Crosby -- the team captain who, at 22, has a league scoring title, a league MVP award and his name on the Stanley Cup -- takes a three-pronged approach to working on his game.

He has his longer-term projects, such as faceoffs. He has his pet peeves of the day, maybe a particular pass or shot that failed him in a recent game.

And then there are the things that already are going swimmingly.

"I guess it's easy when you're having a tough time, to work on something," Crosby said. "You want to be good at it, and you realize you've got to work on it.

"When you're doing well at something, it's a little harder to practice it because you're doing well at it. It's coming easy. That's the time when you've got to remind yourself to stay on it and make sure you keep getting better and don't kind of sit on it because you could be doing well for a couple weeks, then all of a sudden you hit a time when you're trying to catch up."

Crosby's drive helps him juggle all the things he wants to work on. It helps to divide his tasks into long-term goals, short-term goals and crisis management, and treat each area accordingly.

"As long as you realize that, it's easier to manage it and try to work on things," he said. "There are some things that are going to take time, and faceoffs are one of those things."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma describes the art of faceoffs as, at least in part, an exercise in will.

"It's much like blocking a shot," said Bylsma, who excelled in those as a player. "You've really got to want to win it, first off. If you don't really want to win it, if it's not that important to you, you probably aren't going to be that good.

"It doesn't guarantee success, but, if you go in there with a certain expectation level and battle level in the importance of the faceoffs and you're talking to your wingers and your [defensemen] about helping you out and what you're trying to accomplish, I think you're going to have a great success vs. going in there thinking, 'Oh, I'm going in there against a good guy like [Rod] Brind'Amour tonight,' and you talk yourself out of having success."

Crosby's desire to improve is not usually something that is questioned, but he does not stop there -- nor, in the case of faceoffs, does he leave it at taking extra draws in practice.

He scouts his prospective faceoff opponents, their tendencies, whether they are right-handed or left-handed.

"It's practicing it and applying it, finding things out," Crosby said. "That's probably the biggest part, but also just learning about the other guys you're facing off against.

"I'm still facing off against new guys, but I find, for the most part, I'm pretty familiar with who I'm against every night, what works and when you have to bear down and when you have to switch things up."

Crosby is hardly alone as a hockey player who works on his game or craves improvement. He might be a little more intense than many, though.

"Everybody has bad habits you try to shake," Crosby said. "For me, as an offensive player, you get caught cheating sometimes. It doesn't mean you don't care about defense. It's just a natural thing.

"You've got to kind of evaluate yourself sometimes and make sure you're getting back to good habits. That's an NHL hockey season, and that's what you deal with. That's adjusting, and I think every player, we all try to improve those things."

For more on the Penguins, read the new Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at Shelly Anderson can be reached at or 412-263-1721.

Penguins Plus, a blog by Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson, is featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

First published on October 20, 2009 at 12:00 am

Reed's latest incident embarrassment to Steelers

Tuesday, October 20, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers kicker Jeff Reed.

News of another alleged police incident involving Steelers kicker Jeff Reed brought to mind Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning saying so famously of teammate Mike Vanderjagt in 2003, "He's a good kicker, but he's an idiot ... We're talking about our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off."

If Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said that same thing about Reed, no one would argue.

Discuss this issue

Not today.

Not after Reed was given multiple citations Sunday night for simple assault, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and public intoxication outside of McFadden's bar on the North Shore, according to Pittsburgh police.

The incident, in which Reed allegedly harassed the cops as they tried to issue a citation to teammate Matt Spaeth for public urination and was put to the ground and handcuffed for his trouble, is Reed's second in eight months. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and criminal mischief after beating up a towel dispenser in a Sheetz store in February in New Alexandria. One such incident might be brushed off as an isolated lapse in judgment. But two, if these charges are legitimate? That's an embarrassment, not just to Reed, but to the Steelers. It's also a distraction that the team doesn't need as it appears to be starting on a roll with three consecutive wins after a 1-2 start to the season.

Television crews from WTAE and WPXI were at the Steelers' South Side compound early yesterday. They weren't there to look back at the 27-14 win against the Cleveland Browns Sunday or to look ahead to the big game with the unbeaten Minnesota Vikings Sunday at Heinz Field. They were there because Reed appears to have acted like, well, an idiot.


Not exactly the way Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wanted to start his work week.

Neither Reed nor anyone with the Steelers commented yesterday. Reed's Atlanta-based agent, Don Henderson, told the Post-Gazette that Reed was wrongfully detained and will "contest" the charges.

It is believed that Reed -- a Steelers captain -- apologized for the distraction to his coaches and teammates during the team's usual Monday meeting. That's about all he could do at that point.
The damage to his reputation and the team's already had been done, even if his case still must be resolved in the legal system.

An NFL spokesman said the league is aware of Reed's citations and is investigating. It fined him $10,000 for the February incident for violating its personal-conduct code, he revealed during training camp. It's fair to think he'll be hit for $25,000 this time, if he's guilty.

Reed should feel lucky if he is not suspended. He could get a game for sheer stupidity, if nothing else. For putting himself in a position where he has to defend himself against these kinds of charges.

"I don't want people to think I'm that kind of person," Reed said in August of the Sheetz incident. "That's not the way I was raised and this organization doesn't tolerate it. It won't happen again."
But did it?

Reed's timing for making this kind of news couldn't be worse, not just for the team's sake but his. He's in the final year of his contract and will be a free agent at the end of the season. He has said repeatedly he wants to stay with the Steelers.

He has a strange way of showing that, doesn't he?

I've been a big supporter of Reed's for a long time, publicly lobbying the Steelers to do a new deal with him. His consistency on the field has been remarkable, one bad day in Chicago Sept. 20, when he missed two field goals in a tough, 17-14 loss, aside.

But Reed's consistency off the field, if you will, is enough to make you wonder if he has any chance of a future with the Steelers beyond this season. The team shouldn't have to keep dealing with the headaches he causes. Tomlin had to think the first one would be the last one after the two had a little man-to-man talk after Reed's towel tantrum.

"They were great about it," Reed said in August of the support he received from Tomlin and Steelers president Art Rooney II. "They just told me, 'You've done so much for this organization. Just be smart. Be careful out there. You're more of a public figure than you realize.' "

Apparently, Reed wasn't paying attention that day. At least not to the "Be careful out there, you're a public figure" part.

That's inexcusable.

Reed is no kid. He turned 30 April 9. If he has a problem with alcohol and/or anger-management, he should get help. If he doesn't, he should grow up.

He should do one or the other before it's too late for his career.

Ron Cook can be reached at

Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers and Gerry Dulac's Steelers chats are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

First published on October 20, 2009 at 12:00 am

Monday, October 19, 2009

Big Ben tops pass rankings

By ALAN ROBINSON, AP Sports Writer
October 19, 2009

PITTSBURGH (AP)—Brady, Brees, Brett. Now, Big Ben?

Ben Roethlisberger is big on winning—he is 55-22 as a starter, the best record for any NFL quarterback not named Tom Brady.

Statistics? In the past, those were for the guys who didn’t win Super Bowls; Roethlisberger has won two titles. Now, as coordinator Bruce Arians keeps opening up the Steelers’ long-conservative offense, it’s Roethlisberger—not Brady or Drew Brees or Brett Favre—who leads the NFL in passing.

Not even Terry Bradshaw did that in Pittsburgh and won Super Bowls, too.

Roethlisberger didn’t finish in the top 10 in yards passing during either of the two seasons the Steelers won the Super Bowl with him, 2005 or 2008, and he’s never finished higher than eighth.

After throwing for 417 yards Sunday while beating Cleveland 27-14 for the most by any Pittsburgh quarterback during a victory, Roethlisberger leads the NFL with 1,887 yards passing, 77 more than Houston’s Matt Schaub(notes). Roethlisberger also is No. 2 in completion percentage (72.5), No. 2 in yards per game (314.5) and No. 4 in passer rating (104.5).

“We’re putting the ball in his hands,” said wide receiver Hines Ward(notes)— though, in reality it’s the other way around. “When you talk about the elite, he’s right up there. He’s definitely displaying the talents and abilities to be a great quarterback in this league.”

There’s been no major alteration in Roethlisberger’s game that’s led to his greatly increased statistics. Rather, it has been more of an ongoing progression, with former coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and now Arians increasingly handing over more of the offense to him.

Roethlisberger, for example, constantly pushed to run the no-huddle offense. Now, he’s being allowed to do that consistently, with obvious success. Roethlisberger, who began this season with seven 300-yard games in five seasons, is averaging 314.5 yards.

“When I get to the no-huddle, It’s just, `Let’s get in the shotgun and start slinging it around,’ ” Roethlisberger said. “I think if you ask the receivers, they like it. Two guys had over 100 yards (against Cleveland). Heath (Miller) had a lot of yards. The backs are getting the ball. Everybody is getting touches, so I think they like it as well.”

The Steelers (4-2) are even bringing the tight end into the passing game, something they always talk about but never seem to do. Miller, mostly a blocker and part-time receiver, is second among tight ends with 34 catches and four touchdowns in three games.

Only the Colts (326 yards) are averaging more yards per game passing than Pittsburgh (296.7). At his current pace, Roethlisberger would become not only the first Steelers QB to throw for 4,000 yards in a season—Bradshaw passed for 3,724 in 1979—but for 5,000.

“This is the best I’ve ever seen him (Roethlisberger) play,” Miller said. “I’ve seen him play pretty darn good sometimes. I just think the more you do something, the more comfortable you are with it and Ben has full command of this offense. He’s had full command for a few years now, but he just keeps getting better and better.”

In the past, defenses slowed Roethlisberger by constantly blitzing him, and he was sacked an NFL-high 192 times from 2004-08. Only Marc Bulger(notes) (191) of St. Louis was within 20 sacks of him.

The Steelers’ pass protection has been much improved this season, with Roethlisberger going down 16 times, or nine fewer than league leader Aaron Rodgers(notes) of Green Bay. Before throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass to Miller on Sunday, Roethlisberger had so much time he could have waited until after taking the snap to get the play call from the bench.

“He frustrates a lot of defenses because you bring a bunch of guys and he’s able to create plays,” Browns coach Eric Mangini said. “You drop a bunch of guys, you may give him too much time. He’s elusive and he’s strong. He’s different than a lot of guys you face just by his arm strength, his elusiveness. He frustrates a lot of different guys and different defenses.”

While the Steelers’ running game isn’t what it was when Jerome Bettis and, later, Willie Parker(notes) were piling up 1,000-yard seasons, Rashard Mendenhall(notes) has rushed for 304 yards in the last three games. And Ward, in his 12th season, leads the league in yards receiving for the first time.

“I just think we have to do what we can do,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re doing what we have to win the game.”

On Sunday, Roethlisberger gets his first career matchup against all-time NFL passing leader Brett Favre of unbeaten Minnesota (6-0). Roethlisberger was injured and didn’t play when the Steelers beat Favre’s Vikings 20-10 in 2005.

“(He’s) a guy that I’ve looked up to, so I look forward to that,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s going to be a good challenge. We’re going to have to bring our `A’ game on offense.”

This series is improbably lopsided

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Steelers now officially own the Cleveland Browns. The streak is 12 consecutive wins and counting following Sunday afternoon's 27-14 throttling at Heinz Field.

Think USC owns Notre Dame in college football? That the National League owns the Pirates?

OK, so your Pirates have taken losing to a new low.

Still, what the Steelers are doing to the Browns, you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 18: Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers passes the football against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on October 18, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Browns 27-14. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was the 11th pick in the 2004 draft. That year the Browns traded up with Detroit to select tight end Kellen Winslow with the No. 6 pick.

One of the reasons the Browns didn't draft Roethlisberger is because they had a quarterback rotation that year featuring Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown and Kelly Holcomb.

You can stop laughing now.

Don't think that Roethlisberger, an Ohio native, doesn't continue to have the last laugh whenever the teams play. He passed for 417 yards and two touchdowns yesterday.

This is what Roethlisberger, who would have a street named after him if he played in Cleveland, said after the Steelers' offense rang up 543 total yards:

"We played OK. I still think we left some things out there."

Roethlisberger has never lost to the Browns.

How is that possible?

How can the Browns go through through three coaches and who knows how many quarterbacks since Roethlisberger was drafted without a win against his Steelers?

In the parity-driven NFL, that's almost unheard of.

"Twelve in a row ... I never really think about the streak. I just treat it like every other game. But that's something," Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior said.

Left tackle Max Starks said there's a fine line between the rivals, and that the Browns may be the best 1-5 team in the NFL.

"We know they want to beat us so bad, and we want to beat them," Starks said. "We're not that far ahead of them all the time. But we keep fighting. We know at any given moment, if we let up, they can beat us. We're fortunate that we always have good games against them."


Make that dominant.

Thanks to the Browns, the Steelers have been able to count on two wins during each regular season since 2004.

During two of those seasons — 2005 and 2007 — the Steelers may have struggled to make the playoffs if they didn't beat the Browns. In 2005, the Steelers advanced to win Super Bowl XL.

The Steelers' dominance over Cleveland actually dates to when the Browns rejoined the league as an expansion team in 1999. The Steelers are 18-3 in those 21 regular-season meetings.

During that span, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls, made six postseason appearances and won five division titles with seven winning seasons, plus an 8-8 record in Bill Cowher's final season in 2006.

The Browns, meanwhile, have two winning seasons and one playoff appearance during that span — losing to the Steelers 36-33 in a wild-card playoff game in 2002.

The Steelers and Browns are as different as Mike Tomlin and Eric Mangini.

Tomlin looks at the Steelers' 13-point victory and said his 4-2 team fell short of perfection.

"I acknowledge that ball security is something we have to improve at," Tomlin said about his team's four turnovers against the Browns. "When you lose the turnover battle, the chances are you potentially expose yourself to losing football games, but we were able to win today."

Mangini looks at his team and ... who knows what he sees?

"What I told the players are two things they can't do, and we talked about it a lot, are turnovers and big plays. If we could take care of those things, things would be different," Mangini said.

The Steelers owe the Browns a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Comedy of errors at Heinz Field

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ten takes on the Steelers' 27-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns ...

No. 10: Only explanation for what happened at the end of the third quarter: The Browns dragged everybody in the building to their level. Which is awfully low. There were five turnovers on the final 12 snaps. "I was like, what the (heck) is going on?" said Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. The sequence went like this: A Ben Roethlisberger interception, followed by a Derek Anderson fumble, followed by a Willie Parker fumble (Parker was tackled by a blade of grass on the previous play), followed by another Anderson fumble, followed by a Rashard Mendenhall fumble. When the quarter mercifully ended on Mendenhall's gaffe, referee Walt Anderson delivered the topper, announcing to the crowd: "That's the end of the first quarter."

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker(notes), bottom, fumbles after he is hit by Cleveland Browns linebacker Eric Barton(notes), right, and defensive back Brandon McDonald(notes) in the third quarter of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009. The Browns recovered the ball but the Steelers won 27-14. (AP)

No. 9: It was ugly, all right, but guess what? All those meaningless power polls that had the Ravens ranked No. 1 in the NFL a few weeks ago, and the Bengals rising fast, look silly now. Teams prove themselves over four months, not four games.

No. 8: The Steelers need the Lawrence Timmons who showed up yesterday. The explosive version. The guy who finished with a team-best five solo tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. "He was very intense," said teammate James Farrior. "He had a good idea of what they were doing, and it showed. That's what we're going to be expecting from him every week."

No. 7: Jeff Reed said his "best kickoff of the year" was the one Josh Cribbs returned 98 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. It was Cribbs' third career return for a score against the Steelers. After that, Reed said he was under strict orders to avoid Cribbs on kickoffs.

No. 6: If I'm playing the Browns, my kicker's under strict orders to keep the ball at least 20 yards away from Cribbs. As Reed put it: "He's pretty much their offense." Cribbs might have scored twice, but punter Daniel Sepulveda - conjuring his days as a walk-on linebacker at Baylor - made a shoestring tackle on a first-quarter punt return.

No. 5: You know it's not a great day for the running game when the two longest runs are by a quarterback (Roethlisberger, 13 yards) and a wide receiver (Mike Wallace, 21 yards).

No. 4: Roethlisberger's 13-yard scramble was his longest run since a 17-yarder in last year's opener against Houston. His career-long was 30 yards, for a touchdown, against the Browns in a comeback victory two years ago at Heinz Field. Lots of Steelers found more space than usual yesterday. Santonio Holmes had his longest reception (41 yards) of the season; Hines Ward had his longest (52) since '06; and Heath Miller his longest (25) in a regular-season game since '07 at Denver.

No. 3: In the past two games, the Browns have more drops (14) than completions (11). Geez, even Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel dropped an Anderson pass.

No. 2: Cleveland fullback Lawrence Vickers scored the third touchdown of his four-year NFL career. All have come against the Steelers, on receptions covering a total of four yards. Vickers better watch it. If he starts scoring too much, the Browns will trade him.

No. 1: Adrian Peterson, Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings are up next. "I think this will probably be the best offensive team we'll face," Farrior said. "That's what it's all about. It's going to be a real football game right there."

Yeah, as opposed to the one that took place yesterday.

NFL officiating a punchline

Monday, October 19, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 18: Hines Ward(notes) #86 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tries to make a reception in the corner of the end zone against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on October 18, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The pass was incomplete but the Steelers defeated the Browns 27-14. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Sometimes you can't really appreciate how incompetent the Browns are until you see them in the flesh, and though the semi-annual Steelers appointment yesterday proved reliably that Cleveland's NFL entry is again comically bad, it was hard not to notice that the officials were funnier.

Not by much, mind you; the Browns brought out some hilarious stuff, like the third-down fumble nullified by a delay of game penalty (that's right, they can't even fumble on time), but referee Walt Anderson and his crew were more consistently chuckly.

After Cleveland linebacker David Bowens was flagged for roughing Ben Roethlisberger late in the first half, Anderson took to the field microphone and explained that Bowens was guilty of "forcibly taking the quarterback to the ground."

My gracious.

Forcibly? Well, it's often difficult to talk them down.

And you thought forcibly taking the passer to the ground was somewhere in the standard linebacker job description. It might even be the mission statement.

The Browns weren't laughing after a fourth-and-1 play on the same Steelers possession resulted in a measurement the Cleveland defense had just begun to celebrate when officials ruled -- wait a minute -- first down.

Fooled 'ya.

Anderson was compelled to explain that one in the postgame, and dutifully came up with this:

"The ball has to penetrate the plane of the stake. When we set the ball up ready to measure and we bring the chains out, the chains are set beside the football; they're not put down on top of the football. So I get on the side and I'm looking straight in at that angle. So when the stakes go down I'm sighting in between the nose of the football and the stake. So if the nose of the football touches the stake, then it's a first down. It's kind of like a football touching the plane of the goal line. But we don't actually put the stake up against the nose of the ball because of the way the ball is shaped. The chains and the stake are laid beside, so it kind of depends on the angle you might be looking at it from."

Uh-huh. But all I learned right there was that I was suddenly hungry for a steak.

Roethlisberger actually had a better explanation: "We got lucky."

Luck took a coffee break two plays later, when Roethlisberger's perfect fade pass was pulled in expertly by a twisting Hines Ward, but the touchdown was overturned on review despite the inconvenient truth that Ward caught the ball and came down with it in the end zone.

"The ruling I thought was you have to have control while you're in the end zone," Ward said after a sizzling eight-catch, 159-yard effort (120 on the first five). "What the ref said was that you have to continue, no matter how many times you roll. On the second roll the ball hit my thigh and moved a little bit. I had complete control of the ball when I caught it in the end zone."

Anderson disallowed it, but it wasn't Anderson's fault. He was just enforcing a ridiculous rule that is the theoretical opposite of the famous ground-can't-cause-a-fumble dictum. If the ground can't cause a fumble, how can a series of momentum-driven rolls be allowed to cause a negated touchdown?

So instead of being up, 21-7, at the half, the Steelers were briefly in danger when the Browns decided to cram a month's worth of touchdowns (one) into the third quarter. A 45-yard catch by Ward helped stretch the lead back to 24-14.

"It's all about opportunities," Ward said. "I just try to take advantage of the ones I have and that's what I preach to the other guys. We all want the ball out there, but you're only as good as your opportunities. You take away the turnovers we had and we're still out there putting up more yards. I think we had over 500 yards of offense."

Five-hundred forty-three to be tedious, but the turnovers numbered a shocking four, three of them coming in a slapstick second-half sequence in which the Steelers and Browns turned it over on five consecutive possessions. The fifth of those was easily the goofiest, coming when Rashard Mendenhall fled around the right edge, landed in a pile up, and lay there indifferently until backup linebacker Kaluka Maiava ripped it loose for Bowens to recover.

"I was laying on the ground!" Mendenhall said afterward. "Maybe they decided I was on top of some people, but there were parts of me that were on the ground. But still, you can't leave it up to them. You have to hang on to it."

Evidently. When you're on your back in the semi-turtle, I would suggest forward progress has been expired, as had the third quarter, which was when Anderson got back on the field mic and announced, "This is the end of the first quarter!"


There are three more quarters of this?

Blessedly, the remainder of this 27-14 Steelers victory passed without incident, unless you count Browns linebacker Jason Trusnik somehow avoiding a penalty when he forcibly took Roethlisberger to the ground, and unless you count the Ryan Clark interception near the goal line after which officials ruled the Steelers would get the ball at the 20, then re-ruled that it should be spotted at the 1.

Anderson explained from the field the seldom heard phenomenon of "interception momentum."

Asked about that, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said "I have no idea what Walt was talking about."

Funny, but he wasn't laughing.

Gene Collier can be reached at

Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers and Gerry Dulac's Steelers chats are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

First published on October 19, 2009 at 12:00 am