Monday, November 30, 2009

Tomlin must fix Steelers' locker room

Monday, November 30, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin argues pass interference call during last night's 20-17 loss at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

BALTIMORE- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has a much bigger problem on his hands than anything that was created by a 20-17 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens last night. The team lost more than just its third consecutive game in a season that's rapidly headed toward mediocrity. Clearly, it has a schism in the locker room that needs to be repaired before it sabotages any chance the Steelers have of making the playoffs.

Shame on wide receiver Hines Ward for going on national television before the game and saying it's "almost like a 50-50 toss-up in the locker room" about whether quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should or should not have played. Roethlisberger was benched by team neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon after experiencing concussion-related symptoms late last week after taking a knee to the head in Kansas City the previous Sunday. His replacement, Dennis Dixon, made his first NFL start and, after throwing for one touchdown and running for another, threw a killer interception in overtime that led to the winning field goal.

Shame on the 50 percent in the locker room who questioned Roethlisberger's toughness. This is fair to say: Virtually all of those who did will never be as tough as he is.

Ward, who is as tough as any player in the NFL, acknowledged during an interview with NBC that only Roethlisberger knows for sure how he felt in the days leading up to the game. But he didn't do his quarterback -- his teammate and supposed friend for the past six years -- any favors by pointing out that he and a lot of other guys would do just about anything to play in "almost a must-win" game, even if it means lying to team doctors.

"I've been out there dinged up. The following week, got right back out there," Ward told NBC.

"I don't think guys really worry about the future when they're playing currently in the NFL. Trust me, the players want to go out there because these games you don't get back. You're never going to get this Baltimore-Pittsburgh game back. This is a big game."

If I'm Roethlisberger, I'm furious.

If I'm Ward, I don't know how I look Roethlisberger in the eye.

If I'm Tomlin, I'm thinking I have to get the two in a room. Like first thing this morning.

Actually, it sounded after the game as if that's exactly what Tomlin will do. As expected, he downplayed any problem in the locker room and said, "In that instance, maybe Hines was uninformed. In response to that, I will give him that information [about Maroon having the final say]. I will give our football team that information."

For his part, Ward said his intent wasn't to call out Roethlisberger. He said he was "frustrated" after finding out Saturday that his quarterback wouldn't play. "I'm not going to get into a war of words with my quarterback," he said. "We needed him out there. We wanted him out there."

Apparently, tackle Willie Colon is among the 50 percent who didn't have a problem with Roethlisberger sitting out. "I believe in him. You can't sit back and start questioning him after he's been through so much and been in enough fires to be roasted many times over."

Now, that is well-said.

Ward was wrong on a number of fronts, none greater than the fact he put the Roethlisberger issue under the brightest of lights for public scrutiny. If he had a problem with Roethlisberger, he should have taken it directly to him. He never should have taken his thoughts out of the house. That does no one on the team any good.

Beyond that, how can Ward -- or anyone else, for that matter -- have a problem with Roethlisberger's toughness? A teammate who did much of the heavy lifting to put two Super Bowl rings on their fingers in the past four seasons despite being sacked like a zillion times? No one questioned safety Ryan Clark's toughness when he didn't play in Denver a few weeks ago because of a blood disorder. Nor should they have. Too bad that 50 percent didn't give Roethlisberger the same benefit of the doubt.

I know some will argue Roethlisberger brought some of this on himself by embellishing his injuries over the years. He has earned a reputation inside the locker room of being a drama queen.

But this is different. A head injury can impact the rest of a player's life. Tomlin said Roethlisberger had exercise-induced headaches last week. There's no way he should have played last night.

The NFL is taking head injuries more seriously than ever. It is scared to death that it's going to be besieged in the years ahead by former players with concussion-related problems.

I saw an example of this a few weeks ago with former Pitt star and Steelers safety Paul Martha, who estimated he had at least 10 concussions during his career. He's 67, has dementia issues and lives in an assisted care facility in St. Louis. He's one of more than 100 former players who receive up to $88,000 a year in assistance from the NFL for such problems.

Just yesterday, reported the league and the NFL Players Association are close to an agreement that will ban a player from re-entering a game after he experiences concussion-related symptoms. There's also discussion between the two sides to have such a player arbitrarily banned from playing the next week. They are doing their best to save tough-guy players such as Ward from themselves, players so macho that they're even willing to risk their long-term health by lying to team doctors in order to play.

Too bad that ban-from-the-next-game rule wasn't in effect last night.

It would have saved Roethlisberger and Tomlin from one giant headache.

Pardon the poor pun.

Ron Cook can be reached at

First published on November 30, 2009 at 12:30 am

A troubling trend besets Steelers' defense

By Gene Collier
30 November 2009

Larry French/Getty Images

Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason beats Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor for and scores the Ravens' second touchdown in a 20-17 win at at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore last night.

BALTIMORE -- Given the tempest roaring through the Steelers' battered offense, Dick LeBeau's defense couldn't escape the reality that it pretty much had to pitch a shutout here last night. Even common excellence would not do, because the likelihood that a Dennis Dixon-operated attack would be able to carve 20 or 30 points out of Baltimore's defense was similar to the chances of Ray Lewis winning the Miss America pageant.

Even 17 points seemed beyond the possible.

But there we were at the 11 o'clock news with the Steelers somehow ahead, 17-14, in a crucial AFC North conflagration that a concussed Ben Roethlisberger was watching from the sideline.

All that was necessary for Mike Tomlin's team to nail down a wildly unlikely victory and jump back into the playoff picture was one defensive stop as the Ravens faced third-and-22 at the Baltimore 39 as the M&T Bank Stadium clocks blinked inside four minutes.

Too much to ask, evidently.

Joe Flacco found Derrick Mason in the middle of the Steelers' zone for 17 yards, and Baltimore coach John Harbaugh sent the punt team out to the vociferous boos of more than 71,000. Harbaugh called timeout to consider their position, then sent Flacco back out to try his luck at fourth-and-5.

How many Steelers can miss Ray Rice on one play?

A minimum of three, evidently.

Rice beat James Farrior across the middle to take a short Flacco toss, ran through Ty Carter's tackle, ran through Ike Taylor's tackle, and didn't stop until he was bumped across the sideline at the Steelers' 10.

Four plays later, Billy Cundiff chipped home a 24-yard field goal that erased the Steelers' only lead.

"He's a quality player man," Tomlin marveled after the 5-8, 210-pounder slashed his defense for 88 rush yards and another 67 on five receptions. "It kind of all goes through him and he got us at critical times."

Rice's 44-yard rhumba was the fourth pass of 20 yards or more against the Steelers' secondary. Pile those on the five passes of 20 or more the awful Kansas City Chiefs completed last week and maybe you see a trend developing.

The fact is, Dixon deserved better than this.

"I liked his demeanor throughout," Tomlin said. "He made some plays and represented himself relatively well. We wanted to limit his exposure, that's probably the best way to say it. We wanted to run the ball, get the ball on the perimeter, let him find some rhythm and settle in.

"We weren't going to play scared by any stretch."

Translation: We were pretty much hand-cuffed.

There were all kinds of excuses available to the offense, but none as handy as Dixon's "exposure." It's a shame this one will be remembered for Dixon's first career interception, the one he fired into the arms of rookie linebacker Paul Kruger in front of Santonio Holmes in the overtime.

But where are the excuses for Dick LeBeau's unit?

Baltimore went 73 yards to a touchdown right through it on nine plays the first time it touched the ball, with Flacco hitting all five of his passes for 50 of those yards. Typically, LeBeau's schemes confound the old Blue Hen. The Steelers picked him off five times in their previous two meetings, three of those in the AFC title game.

That Dixon was able to erase that lead with a 33-yard scoring pass to Santonio Holmes was a small miracle, but the defense gave the lead right back when safety Ryan Clark, who dropped interceptions in each of the previous two games, allowed Mark Clayton to pull down a 54-yard pass.

It didn't matter a whit that Clark arrived in plenty of time to prevent that completion, yet inexplicably, he never looked for the football. On the very next play, Derrick Mason beat Ike Taylor on the left edge of the end zone for a 14-7 Ravens lead that stood until halftime.

But even after Dixon rallied them to a three-point lead with a 24-yard run early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers remained willing and able to give it back.

"Shouldn't have gone to overtime," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley. "We still had the right opportunity. We had enough points out there to win the game. We've got to finish strong.

"We've lost the last three. Those three losses could drag you down, cause you never know."

Right. So now you can play scared.

Gene Collier can be reached at

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Murtaugh receives another shot at the Hall

Sunday, November 29, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It might seem like a fairy tale if the late Danny Murtaugh were to be voted into baseball's Hall of Fame on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the world championship the Pirates won under him in 1960. But Bill Virdon, one of his pupils, doesn't put his candidacy in the realm of make-believe.

"He deserves it. I'm all for it. I wish I could vote," said Virdon, who played under Murtaugh on that 1960 team and later managed in four different organizations, winning division titles with the Pirates and the Astros.

"He was the best thing that ever happened to me in baseball. I played for him, and he set me up to manage. Any time he'd have a chance, he'd tell me why he did something. I observed him very closely. I thought of him as one of the best in the business," he added.

Post-Gazette archives

Clockwise from left, Danny Murtaugh in his rocking chair was a familiar clubhouse sight in the 1970s; the iconic shot of Murtaugh with Bill Mazeroski after Game 7 of the 1960 World Series; Murtaugh acknowledges the Three Rivers Stadium crowd on his final day as manager -- Oct. 4, 1976.

A 16-member veterans committee will meet next Sunday to consider the candidacy of Murtaugh, seven other managers and two umpires for the Hall of Fame. A minimum of 12 votes, or 75 percent of the total, are required for induction. Results will be announced on Dec. 7, at major league baseball's winter meetings in Indianapolis.

Murtaugh, whose No. 40 has been retired by the Pirates, previously was considered for enshrinement two years ago. He received six of 16 votes from the veterans' panel.

A native of Chester, Pa., Murtaugh managed the Pirates in four separate stints over 15 seasons while dealing with health issues such as ulcers in a high-stress post. His teams had a winning percentage of .540 (1,115 wins against 950 losses), and the Pirates won the National League pennant and World Series under him in 1960 and 1971. He died on Dec. 2, 1976, at age 59.

Like others who played under Murtaugh, Virdon said there were simple commandments to be obeyed -- work hard, hustle and be alert.

"He wasn't arrogant. He wasn't looking for accolades. He wasn't one to try to take credit. He just wanted to do well," Virdon said.

The Pirates have lobbied on Murtaugh's behalf, putting together an information packet that was sent to the Hall of Fame committee. Included are endorsement letters from former players and team executives, including letters from Virdon and Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski.

Mazeroski's career sputtered under Bobby Bragan but flourished under Murtaugh, who took over the Pirates during the 1957 season. A second baseman during his big league career, Murtaugh put Mazeroski's name in the everyday lineup and kept it there. From then on, Maz didn't have to worry about who might be pinch-hitting for him early in a game.

During Murtaugh's tenure, which included the transition from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates twice won championships over powerhouse organizations skippered by managers who are in the Hall of Fame -- the 1960 Yankees of Casey Stengel and the 1971 Baltimore Orioles managed by Earl Weaver.

"Nothing illustrates Murtaugh's managerial career better than his two World Series wins over two Hall of Fame managers in two different decades," Mazeroski said.

In the days when baseball was indisputably the national pastime, Murtaugh was known as a player's manager.

"He was great to play for," said Roy Face, who pioneered the role of the relief pitcher under Murtaugh's guidance. "If you did your job, he left you alone. If you didn't, he'd want to know why. He knew what was going on, on and off the field."

For Steve Blass, who pitched a complete game to beat the Orioles in Baltimore in the 1971 World Series, Murtaugh was the ideal manager.

"I loved the man. He was never unprepared. He knew the game inside and out. When any kind of situation came up, he was able to deal with it quietly and effectively," Blass said. "You can never have too many Danny Murtaughs in the Hall of Fame."

The timing couldn't be better, according to Joe Garagiola, a former big league catcher who made it to the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. But sentiment goes only so far in Hall of Fame votes.

"I really don't think you get to the Hall of Fame on numbers and awards alone. It's the contributions above the numbers. Danny has that covered with the teams he played for and managed," Garagiola wrote in his endorsement letter.

Murtaugh is on the ballot with managers Charlie Grimm, Whitey Herzog, Davey Johnson, Tom Kelly, Billy Martin, Gene Mauch and Steve O'Neill, and umpires Dough Harvey and Hank O'Day.

The voters include Jim Bunning, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, Al Kaline, Tom Lasorda, Phil Niekro, Tony Perez, Billy Williams and Dick Williams, along with media members Tim Kurkjian of ESPN, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated and Jack O'Connell of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Hall arguments for Murtaugh

• His 1,115 wins are more than Hall of Famers Harry Wright (1,000) and Billy Southworth (1,044).

• His .540 winning percentage ranks higher than the following managers who are already in Cooperstown: Ned Hanlon (.530), Bucky Harris (.493), Tommy Lasorda (.526), Connie Mack (.486), Bill McKechnie (.526), Wilbert Robinson (.500), Dick Williams (.520) and Casey Stengel (.508).

• Hall of Fame managers Leo Durocher (1), Earl Weaver (1), Ned Hanlon (1), Al Lopez (0), Wilbert Robinson (0), Frank Selee (0) did not win as many World Series as Murtaugh's two.

• Only seven managers in the Hall have more than Murtaugh's two World Series titles.

-- Pittsburgh Pirates

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at

First published on November 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Motivated Dixon set for big shot with Steelers

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dennis Dixon's right arm offers a glimpse into why he likely won't get stage fright tonight at Baltimore when he throws his first meaningful pass in two years.

Etched on it is an image of his mother's face along with the words, "I'll holla," which is what Jueretta Dixon would often tell Dennis before they parted.

The tattoo — and the woman who showed him how to battle through adversity until cancer claimed her life while she was on the phone with her only son — will serve as a source of strength tonight when Dixon makes his first career NFL start, against the Ravens.

Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will sit out the game as a precaution after sustaining his third football-related concussion last Sunday. Roethlisberger told Dixon Saturday morning that the latter would lead the Steelers' offense in today's key AFC North game.

What Dixon endured before and after his mother died almost six years ago is why playing in a stadium where fans are particularly hostile to the Steelers will be nothing to fret about.

What the Steelers and Dixon can't know is whether he is ready to make the jump from No. 3 quarterback to starter with Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch, who had surgery on his left wrist last Wednesday, out with injuries.

The second-year man, while talented, has thrown just one NFL pass. Dixon, 24, hasn't started a game since his senior year at the University of Oregon, and that came before a major knee injury ended his season and his Heisman Trophy candidacy.

"The nice thing about Dennis is he's usually pretty cool," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "He's been in big games. He kind of likes the stage, and that's what you want in a quarterback."

Lessons from a mother

Of the many qualities Dixon inherited from his mother, his father said two, along with her easy smile, stand out: "Quiet and focused on the task at hand," said Dennis Dixon Sr.

Jueretta Dixon exhibited both attributes and tapped into a deep reservoir of strength during her three-year battle with breast cancer.

She initially tried hiding her illness from her son and younger daughter so they wouldn't lose focus at school. She refused to take off work as a computer technician at the Naval Supply Center in Oakland, Calif., even as the cancer ravaged her body and a stroke left her paralyzed on her left side.

Just as she and her husband had been Dixon's biggest supporters growing up — they rarely missed one of his games or practices — she is still with him in spirit.

Dixon's ritual includes reciting the prayer his mother would say to him before games. To him, the "I'll holla" inscription on his arm serves as a reminder that the goodbye they shared on Feb. 3, 2004 is only temporary.

Indeed, their bond is so strong that not even death could break it.

"I know she's always participating with me," Dixon said.

Dixon, or Dennis Jr. as his parents always called him, last saw his mother shortly after he left for Oregon as a freshman.

One weekend he went home to visit, and as he made the eight-hour drive back to Eugene, he stopped every two hours to check in with his parents.

A couple of days later, he called home before one of his mother's chemotherapy appointments. With Jueretta in a wheelchair and unable to hold the phone, Dennis Dixon Sr. put the receiver by her ear.

As soon as she heard her son's voice, he said, she passed away.

She was 46 at the time of her death.

"I really believe she was holding on just for that moment," the elder Dixon said.

Dixon, who had enrolled at Oregon in January of 2004, struggled with the loss enough that he thought about going home for good.

A strong support system and the knowledge that quitting school is the last thing his mom would have wanted kept him at Oregon.

He eventually blossomed into one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. He had thrown or rushed for 29 touchdowns and over 2,700 yards through 10 games in 2007 before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee.

The season-ending injury caused Dixon to fall to the fifth round of the 2008 NFL draft, and the Steelers were elated to get him.

Long and lean as a goal post, Dixon is arguably as good an athlete as anybody on the Steelers.

The 6-3, 209-pounder excelled in four sports (football, basketball, baseball and soccer) while growing up. He was drafted twice by Major League Baseball, and he spent a summer playing outfielder in the Atlanta Braves' minor-league system prior to his senior season at Oregon.

A fifth-round pick of the Braves in 2007, Dixon might have pursued a career in baseball had the sweeping curveballs he saw been easier to hit.

Focusing on the task at hand

Because he played in a spread option offense at Oregon, Dixon's learning curve in the NFL has been steeper than most.

But the Steelers were enamored with the ability Dixon showed as a pocket passer at Oregon.

"In college you think: 'Oh, he's just a running quarterback', but Dennis can really throw the ball, and he's very accurate," said safety Ryan Mundy, one of Dixon's closest friends on the Steelers. "I broke up a few of his balls (in practice), and I'm like: 'Dang, my fingers hurt.'

"He's always been focused and always wants to get better."

Arians agreed.

"He has worked his tail off to learn to get through a progression, stay in the pocket and then run if it's necessary," Arians said.

If it is necessary for Dixon to play tonight or in the coming weeks, he said he won't have trouble projecting confidence to those around him in the Steelers' huddle.

"You've got to show the team you're ready to go," Dixon said.

Hs father father has no doubts. Dennis Dixon Sr. and his son have become even closer since each lost the most important woman in their lives. Dixon Sr. rarely misses a Steelers' game even though he still lives and works in Oakland.

He piled up more frequent-flier miles this weekend as he traveled to Baltimore, and he will be in the stands tonight at M&T Bank Stadium.

Asked what Jueretta Dixon would be thinking with Dennis Jr. poised to take another step in a journey that has been a testament to perseverance, Dixon Sr. said: "Words couldn't say how proud she is right now."

Getting to know Dennis Dixon

Here is the skinny on Steelers backup quarterback Dennis Dixon.

Ht.: 6-3

Weight: 209

Birthplace: San Leandro, Calif.

College: Oregon

Notable: Sixth on school's all-time list for total offense with 6,337 career yards.

Drafted: fifth round in 2008, 156th overall pick

Favorite TV show: "Prison Break"

Who is on your Ipod: Jay Z, Lil Wayne, U40

Favorite movie: "Deja Vu"

Favorite meal: Seafood. "I love crabs."

Favorite athlete growing up: Randall Cunningham

Favorite sports team growing up: Oakland Raiders

Something people don't know about you: "I can dance."

Funniest teammate: "(cornerback) Will Gay. That Florida slang that he's got, it's different than where I'm from. It's funny."

What three things you would have on a deserted island: Water, first-aid kit and food.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Steelers must find their edge

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mike Tomlin might as well have worn a white coat and stethoscope to his weekly news conference.

The session went into overtime, just like the Chiefs game, and took on a decidedly medical tone. Ben Roethlisberger's concussion, Charlie Batch's broken wrist and Dennis Dixon's promotion from emergency quarterback all were hot issues.

Roethlisberger is expected to start Sunday night in Baltimore. Steelers fans better hope he plays better than he did coming off a concussion in 2006, when he went to Oakland and had the most calamitous game of his career. He was so bad you wondered if he was playing through lingering symptoms.

Even if Big Ben is clear-headed, this team has serious issues. Or, as Dr. Tomlin put it, "some ills that are very apparent."

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 22: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tries to avoid a sack in NFL game action against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on November 22, 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri. The Chiefs defeated the Steelers 27-24. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Playing in Baltimore might help, for if any team can sharpen the Steelers' dulled edge, it's the Ravens.

"That medicine," Tomlin declared, "is just what the doctor ordered."

So is a closer look at the symptoms. Let's start where the Chiefs did — by ripping the special teams.

I was astonished when Tomlin hired Bob Ligashesky as his special teams coach in 2007 and remain so, despite last year's success.

Ligashesky's resume included spotty tenures at Pitt and with the St. Louis Rams:

· In 2003, Pitt's special teams finished 116th out of 117 Division I-A teams in kickoff coverage, and last in the Big East in returns.

· In 2006, the Rams had the NFL's 28th-ranked kick coverage unit and allowed an NFL-worst three returns (one punt, two kickoffs) for touchdowns.

Ligashesky hardly is alone among the special-teams culprits. Jeff Reed lost a game in Chicago; Daniel Sepulveda failed at critical times the past two weeks (touchback in overtime included); and return man Stefan Logan has yet to alter the course of a game.

And remember, it was Ligashesky's bosses who elected to revamp a kickoff coverage unit that finished first in the NFL last season. The biggest move was releasing Anthony Madison, who was set to make $1.01 million after leading the team with 25 special-teams tackles.

Maybe the Steelers' reluctance to invest in special teams set the tone for what we're seeing now.

At least Tomlin finally is open to playing more starters on his coverage units. Previously, he'd said using the likes of James Harrison would merely be a "Band-Aid."

That was a far cry from the "all-hands-on-deck" mentality Tomlin once espoused.

Meanwhile, a man wheeling a suitcase was seen walking the hallways with Ligashesky yesterday. I'm guessing it was a potential special-teams pick-up and not a traveling medic, because Tomlin said several such players are being auditioned. (Two were signed — linebacker Rocky Boiman and cornerback Corey Ivy.)

As for the team's other two units, Tomlin reminded us that his defense is ranked No. 1 and his offense sixth.

Who cares? Neither has delivered late in games as consistently as it did last season.

Talk all you want about how the pass-happy offense and the dysfunctional special teams have made it tough on the defense. That is no excuse for repeated late-game lapses.

It's like the baseball scenario where a closer blows a save and all anyone talks about is how the game was lost in the first and fifth innings, when the middle of the order left the bases loaded.

What does that have to do with the closer's job?

Somehow, somewhere, the Steelers have lost their winning edge. You have to wonder if Tomlin's approach, most notably a tame training camp and a bye-week vacation of unprecedented proportions, has contributed.

In his first year, Tomlin overworked his players. Troy Polamalu was among those who later said a harsh training camp contributed to a late-season swoon.

Could it be that the coach went too far in the opposite direction this season?

Tomlin promised yesterday to be "very aggressive" in seeking to cure the ills. Perhaps he should consider how a recent case of Steelers malaise was remedied.

Back in 2005, after his team dropped to 7-5, Bill Cowher re-invigorated daily practice by putting his team in full pads. For the rest of the season, practice (and games) took on a markedly different and desperate tone.

Indeed, the switch to full pads was just what the doctor ordered.

Open Your Books, Mr. Nutting!

Open your books, Mr. Nutting!
By Bob Smizik Wednesday, 1 a.m.

In a startling bit of reporting, the widely respected Jason Stark of wrote last week that many small-market MLB teams are far wealthier than anyone ever expected.

According to Stark, teams like the Pirates receive about $80 million in revenue before they sell a ticket.

That’s a figure that had not previously been reported and it's one that has to make any Pirates fan wonder where all the money is going because it’s certainly not going toward payroll.

Are the long-held suspicions that principal owner Bob Nutting is pocketing a handsome profit while foisting a third-rate team on the Pittsburgh fans true? Is Nutting the villain many fans and former fans portray him to be?

Based on Stark’s reporting, there is reason to be at least suspicious.

Stark reported that all MLB teams receive $30 million from the Central Fund, which includes revenue from national television, radio, Internet, licensing, merchandising, marketing and MLB International.

Additionally, every team but one (not believed to be the Pirates) makes at least $15 million from local radio and television revenue.

Finally, the teams that have the lowest revenue (the Pirates are in that group) receive about $35 million in revenue sharing.

That’s $30 million from the Central Fund, $15 million from local media and $35 million for revenue sharing. That comes to $80 million.

What about it, Mr. Nutting?

Nutting wasn’t talking but team president Frank Coonelly spoke to Ken Rosenthal of Fox. Rosenthal, working with a different figure, wrote: "He [Coonelly] said his club received substantially less than $40 million in revenue sharing last year, but declined to say what the specific numbers were.’’

Maybe that number was the $35 million, as reported by Stark, which is substantially less than the $40 million Coonelly was asked about. In effect, Coonelly could have been confirming Stark’s figure.

Rob Manfred, MLB’s chief of labor relations, told Rosenthal, "There is no one club getting $80 or $90 million in combination from revenue sharing and Central Baseball. Not one.’’

That’s not what Stark wrote. He said teams were getting that much money from revenue sharing, the Central Fund and local radio and TV.

Manfred was denying nothing.

So what is the real story?

No one is saying and Pirates fans, who never trusted Nutting, now have less reason to do so.

Is he financing Seven Springs with Pirates money? Is he bailing out his small-town newspaper empire with baseball profits? Or is he just putting it in his pocket?

People are suggesting as much and as long as Nutting remains quiet, he only stokes the speculation.

There’s one way to end the talk.

Open your books, Mr. Nutting.

Let the public know how much profit you’re making and where that profit is going.

Of course, you don’t have to do that. The Pirates are a private company. But they are public institution playing in a beautiful baseball stadium that was largely financed by tax dollars.

Your team relies heavily on public goodwill and through your actions you are destroying that goodwill. I have followed the Pirates as a fan for more than 60 years and as a journalist for more than 40 and I’ve never seen the team and the organization held in such a low regard.

It’s not just the losing. It’s the way you go about your business. You arouse suspicion by your actions and the actions of your subordinates.

If a public opening of the books isn’t to your liking, at least allow a government-appointed commission study your finances and report back.

If you have nothing to hide, this should not be a problem. If you do, of course, you’ll reject any attempt to let the public know how you run your business.

To use a term from another sport, the ball is in your court, Mr. Nutting.

You can surprise us all by being open and honest about your financial situation. Or you can continue to arouse suspicion and drive away customers by conducting business as usual.

Posted: Bob Smizik with 18 comment(s)
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Even dependable Miller dropped the ball for the Steelers

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Thought I had seen everything when Jeff Reed missed those two field goals in a loss in Chicago in September. I mean, really. Who on the Steelers' roster is more dependable than Reed?

What's that?

You said Heath Miller?

Yeah, you're right.

Charlie Riedel.Associated Press

Steelers tight end Heath Miller, left, caught seven passes for 95 yards Sunday in Kansas City.

I watched Miller turn what should have been an easy catch Sunday into an interception for Kansas City linebacker Andy Studebaker, a huge play in the Chiefs' 27-24 overtime win. Now, I'm certain I have seen everything.

"It happens," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said on his way out of Arrowhead Stadium. "No one is super human. Although Heath is close."

It's not as if Miller never drops a ball. He had a fairly significant drop in Denver a few weeks ago before the Steelers pulled away to win. I know my memory isn't what it used to be, but it seems like that never happened more than once a year in the first four seasons of Miller's strong NFL career, a big reason the team gave him a six-year, $35.3 million contract in July. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the play Sunday made it two drops in three games and this one happened at a really lousy time.

Ahead, 17-7, early in the third quarter, the Steelers were driving again when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found Miller open over the middle on first-and-10 from the Steelers' 48. It's fair to say the 30,000 or so Steelers fans at the game expected Miller to do what he almost always does -- catch the ball and break a tackle or two before three defenders finally bring him down.

It happened that way in the first half when he caught a pass for a 41-yard gain on a play when Ward nearly blocked cornerback Brandon Flowers into next week, then again when he had a catch for 16 yards. And you should have heard those Steelers fans scream, "Heeeeeath!" when he caught a 10-yard touchdown pass to build that 17-7 lead. You would have sworn you were at Heinz Field.

This time, though, Roethlisberger's perfect pass slipped through Miller's hands and bounced off his pads, right to Studebaker. Miller angrily threw him down at the Chiefs' 38. You could almost feel the game turn.

"One of the flukiest plays I've ever seen," Ward said. "Heath, by far, is one of best guys with hands. When that happened, my first reaction was, 'Wow!' I kept saying to myself, 'Wow!' "

Miller was so upset that he didn't sit with his teammates on the bench during the Chiefs' possession that followed. He stood on the sideline with his helmet on, his frustration with himself turning to a sick feeling in his stomach when the Chiefs scored a touchdown to make the score 17-14.

"It's disappointing because I want to be a guy who, when I get a chance to make a play to help this team, I make it," Miller said, still despondent 20 minutes after the game, probably moreso than anyone in the losing locker room. "Generally, we didn't do the things a good offense does. But I can only speak for myself. I was way below the standard today. That's unacceptable."

Miller was hardly alone. Everyone from coach Mike Tomlin on down had a rotten day. Roethlisberger threw another interception to Studebaker in the Chiefs' end zone when he was hit by linebacker Tamba Hali. Wide receiver Mike Wallace lost a fumble fighting for extra yards in Chiefs territory. The offense didn't execute on a toss sweep to running back Mewelde Moore in overtime and lost 3 yards on third-and-2 from the Chiefs' 35, making the 518 yards it had gained before meaningless. The defense couldn't hold a late 24-17 lead, giving up, on consecutive plays, a 30-yard pass when cornerback Deshea Townsend was beaten and a 47-yard pass when safety Ryan Clark was torched. It also gave up a 61-yard pass in overtime when Clark missed a tackle. And, of course, the wonderful kickoff team gave up another return for a touchdown.

Miller's day fit right in with the ineptitude, wouldn't you say?

It's a shame because Miller nearly had a monstrous game. If he makes that one catch, he would have had the second 100-yard receiving game of his career. As it was, he finished with seven catches for 95 yards. The touchdown was his fifth of the season and his 54 catches for the year are a career high with six games left.

"It's all irrelevant if you don't win," Miller said, softly.

He looked as if he were going to cry.

He hardly looked super human.

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on November 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

Monday, November 23, 2009

Steelers forgot about Mendenhall late

Monday, November 23, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Remember when it was fashionable to trash Rashard Mendenhall, to snark on his fumbling, riff on his evident indecision, bewail his questionable status as a force for good on an offense laced with All-Pros and Super Bowl MVPs?

Well there's good news: RasharMendenhall's progression might have made him the best player on the field yesterday. Too bad the rest of the organization blew past him in the opposite direction.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall accounted for 116 yards combined rushing and receiving yesterday.

Losing to the Kansas City Chiefs probably isn't the worst thing you can do in this league, but its degree of difficulty might suggest otherwise. Until yesterday, you should note, the Chiefs hadn't won twice in a row in more than two years.

"That is not us; it won't be us, but it was us today," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in a postgame, fast-distilling a 27-24 overtime loss into an audio edition of US Magazine.

The head coach forcefully accepted full responsibility for the Steelers' second loss in eight days, but it was intriguing that some of the uniformed personnel seemed to indicate general support for that assessment.

"The coaches have to put us in a better position," said Hines Ward, as tenured a Steelers player as you can find and a man who had just wasted a 10-catch, 128-yard performance. "All of us have to look in the mirror, but we're all in this together; the coaches have to evaluate themselves as much was we do."

The first thing Tomlin and his offensive staff have to ask themselves is whether they trust Mendenhall to win a game for them, because even though he nearly had done exactly that without authorization in 60 minutes of 600 Steelers mistakes, they still utilized him in the overtime like he was Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Mind you, there would have been no overtime without Mendenhall.

Without Mendenhall, the Steelers lose in regulation.

It was Mendenhall, lest anyone forget, who had the cardio and the will to gallop more than 100 yards to chase down Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker at the Steelers' 8 late in the third quarter. Studebaker, making his first career start, had taken off on a coast-to-coast flight with a misdirected Ben Roethlisberger pass he had collected 2 yards deep in his own end zone. Mendenhall turned a certain touchdown into a Chiefs field goal, keeping the score tied at that point, then beat the coverage on a quick post to pull in an 8-yard touchdown pass that put the Steelers back on top, 24-17, with 8:35 remaining.

The blown coverages in the Steelers' secondary, part of a systems-wide breakdown from one end of this Missouri lawn to the other, resulted in a tying touchdown less than four minutes later. But in a game when Mendenhall would account for 116 yards rushing and receiving, the Steelers ran exactly one play for him over two possessions in the final 4:54.

"I felt like we had a good balance between running and passing," Mendenhall said diplomatically.

The imbalanced balance yesterday was 42 passes, 29 runs. The Steelers haven't had a rushing touchdown since Oct. 19, but it looked suspiciously like they were capable of one in the overtime. Mendenhall got 7 yards on a first-and-10, 7 yards on the next first-and-10, then 8 on second-and-10 to the Kansas City 35.

But on third-and-2, or just one first down from a winning field goal, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians sent Mewelde Moore wide right on a toss play. A stampede of red shirts put Moore on the grass for a loss of 3, leaving Tomlin no choice but to punt.

"I guess if they go zero -- and all-out blitz, we might have been able to pop one outside on them," said Charlie Batch, suddenly in the game after Roethlisberger took a knee to the head from linebacker Derrick Johnson. "But they didn't."

"We tried to get a perimeter run there," Tomlin said. "We were at the outer edge of field-goal range."

"I guess we thought we could catch them in something," Ward said. "I cracked down on the end, but it didn't work. If you run something else and it doesn't work, maybe it's fourth-and-1 and you give us a chance. But when you lose 3 yards, you have no choice but to punt. The play call is what it is; we have to execute it."

Four plays later, Chiefs wideout Chris Chambers took a short Matt Cassel pass 61 yards through a fractured Steelers secondary to the spot of the winning field goal.

That the Steelers lost on the road for the third time this year (more than all of last year) is one thing, but that they lost to a team that is 90 percent talent-free speaks poorly of their pridefulness.

"We'll get it corrected, whatever it is," shrugged nose tackle Casey Hampton. "We can still win 12 games, so it don't matter. Twelve will get you in [to the playoffs]."

I don't know if playing 'em six at a time will be very productive, but being a little more trustful of No. 34 certainly ought to be.

Gene Collier can be reached at

Steelers season not doomed

Monday, November 23, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Somebody with a microphone asked Steelers safety Tyrone Carter if the better team won here yesterday. It seemed like such a jarring question considering the Kansas City Chiefs are a miserable team that came in 2-7 and the Steelers like to think of themselves as Super Bowl contenders. Or at least did.

"You're a comedian," safety Ryan Clark growled at the media type from two lockers down.

Funny, Clark wasn't laughing.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers Santonio Holmes fights off a tackle by Chiefs defensive back Brandon Carr.

The only thing laughable on this day at Arrowhead Stadium was the Steelers' performance. It was so bad it would have been an absolute crime if they had somehow won the game. Justice clearly was served when the Chiefs' Ryan Succop booted a 22-yard field goal in overtime for the 27-24 win.

Having written that, though, I don't think for a second that the Steelers' season is doomed because of this second consecutive loss, bad as it was. I'll be surprised if they don't play a great game at Baltimore Sunday night. In fact, I'm going to make a bold prediction ...

Not that the Steelers will beat the Ravens. I can't go there until I know quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play. He left in overtime with a concussion after taking a knee in the head from linebacker Derrick Johnson, easily the worst part of a rotten afternoon when the team also lost guard Chris Kemoeatu with a potentially serious knee injury.

But I will predict the Steelers won't give up a kickoff return for a touchdown to the Ravens. Talk about climbing way out on a limb!

"It's embarrassing," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said of Jamaal Charles' 97-yard kickoff return that gave the Chiefs a 7-0 lead just 16 seconds in. "That's four already this season, right?"

Four in the past five games, actually.

"That's never happened before in history," Ward said. I don't know about you, I'm willing to forgive his redundancy. His point nearly was dead-on: Before these Steelers, only the 1998 Minnesota Vikings had allowed four kickoff returns for touchdowns in a season. "It's embarrassing," Ward said again.

A lot that happened to the Steelers was.

They were called for five holding penalties, the biggest part of their absurdly high 85 penalty yards. Wide receiver Mike Wallace lost a fumble in Chiefs' territory fighting for extra yards. Roethlisberger threw one interception when his perfect pass clanged off tight end Heath Miller's hands, another when he was hit by linebacker Tamba Hali as he threw on a first-and-goal play at the Chiefs' 10 late in the third quarter. That second one really hurt because linebacker Andy Studebaker returned it 94 yards to set up a field goal. Roethlisberger was sacked on each of the final two drives of regulation and a third sack was nullified by an illegal contact penalty on Chiefs defensive end Wallace Gilberry. Running back Mewelde Moore was thrown for a 3-yard loss on third-and-2 from the Chiefs' 35 in overtime.

Whew, this is exhausting.

Cornerback Deshea Townsend was beaten by wide receiver Lance Long for a 30-yard pass play midway through the fourth quarter, Clark by wide receiver Chris Chambers for 47 yards on the next play. Clark and cornerback Ike Taylor dropped interceptions, Taylor's drop coming in overtime on the play before quarterback Matt Cassel hit Chambers for 61 yards to set up the winning field goal. Clark took a horrible angle and missed the tackle on that overtime play, which Carter said happened because he and Taylor didn't get the defensive call from the sideline.

Did I mention it would have been a crime if the Steelers had won?

It's hard to believe an alleged good team can play so poorly against an overmatched opponent.

This easily was the most embarrassing loss of the Mike Tomlin era.

"We are capable of much more than that," the man himself said of the debacle. "That is not us and it won't be us. [But] it was us today."

This is the second time this season that the Steelers have lost two in a row. I remember writing after their losses to the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals that it was the first real adversity Tomlin had faced. But this seems worse. "I would say so, yeah," Ward said. There's so little season left, just six games. Who knows what Roethlisberger's status will be at a time when all NFL teams are on red alert for head injuries?

"[Tomlin] is our leader and the veteran guys on this team will do what he says," Ward said. "All of us are responsible for this. All of us need to look in the mirror."

What will look back is hideous, a 6-4 team that can't seem to get out of its own way right now. The Steelers' play the past two games was hardly Super Bowl-caliber. It was more Chiefs-like.

Not to try to be funny because I'm pretty sure Clark wouldn't like that. Or Tomlin, for that matter.

"What we won't do is point fingers," the coach said. "What we won't do is come apart ... These are the kind of men we have in our locker room."

I believe him.

I, for one, refuse to hurt myself jumping off the bandwagon.

Not just yet, anyway.

Ron Cook can be reached at

First published on November 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Put Harrison, Keisel on special teams

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

As a concession to potential injury and their status on the team, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin relieved Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison and starting defensive end Brett Keisel of important special teams responsibilities.

It's time for Tomlin to stop being Mr. Nice Guy and return Harrison and Keisel to the trenches with the other special teams grunts.

It was 2007 all over again for the Steelers during Sunday's special teams meltdown in a critical 18-12 loss to Cincinnati at Heinz Field.

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 15: Bernard Scott #28 and Nate Livings #62 of the Cincinnati Bengals run ahead of Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on November 15, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Bengals won 18-12. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Only this time it wasn't Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs returning kickoffs for 100 and 90 yards in the same game, or Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew's backbreaking kickoff return in the AFC Wild Card playoff game.

Pin this loss on the special teams for allowing another kickoff return for a touchdown, the third kickoff returned for a score against the Steelers in four games.

If Tomlin truly believes special teams are just as important as his offense and defense, he'll shake up the lineup before Sunday's game at Kansas City.

"It's something we've worked on, something that obviously we're aware of and it just seems to keep happening,'' Keisel said. "I'm sure coach Tomlin is going to address it and I'm sure some moves are going to be made. Who knows? I might be at (my old position) again.''

Tomlin took the first step when he replaced Stefan Logan with rookie Mike Wallace after Logan returned yet another kickoff deep in the end zone and failed to reach the 20-yard line.

Why stop there? Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes returned a punt for a touchdown against Carolina in his rookie season. Holmes' most important punt return went for a 67-yard touchdown against San Diego in last year's divisional playoff game.

Holmes wants to return punts full time, but Tomlin won't let him.

The return teams need proven playmakers like Holmes.

Said Logan, a free agent from the Canadian Football League who was stripped of the ball on a punt return against San Diego this season that resulted in a touchdown: "I put a lot of pressure on myself because we've had three kickoffs run back on us.''

The kickoff team needs bigger and faster athletes like Harrison and Keisel, who were longtime special teams mainstays. Starting inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons should also return to special teams, joining starting cornerbacks Ike Taylor and William Gay, who are already on the kickoff team.

It's no coincidence that the performance of the special teams has slacked off since the departure of Harrison, Keisel and Timmons.

Sure, it's a gamble to play starters on special teams because of the injury risk. Football is a violent enough sport as it is. Allowing key starters to also play special teams is the NFL's version of Russian roulette.

However, the Steelers can't afford to lose any more games because of poor special teams play.

Watching kicker Jeff Reed run away from making tackles on kickoff returns is comic relief at best, six points at worst.

But seeing players who are paid to only play special teams getting blown up at the point of attack, not getting through blocks and not putting the opposing return man on the ground can have a devastating effect on the rest of the team.

"You can't quite put your finger on it right now. You watch the tape, guys are giving effort,'' backup linebacker and special teams captain Keyaron Fox said. "We're just not getting to the ball, we're not tackling the football.''

Kickoffs returned for touchdowns are momentum-changers. The Steelers never recovered from Jones-Drew's return that set up a short touchdown run during their playoff loss two years ago. In Sunday's game, the Steelers never led following rookie Bernard Scott's 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Defensive captain James Farrior said the failure of the special teams falls on everyone.

"It's not just special teams. It's offensive players and defensive players out there. We've all got to be held accountable,'' Farrior said.

Sorry. I'll accept Farrior's explanation when the Steelers' special teams is blamed for the defense giving up points. It's Tomlin's responsibility to put his best special teams players on the field and that hasn't been the case this season.

All is not lost for the Steelers

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Ike Taylor can only watch as the Bengals' Bernard Scott (28) celebrates with Quan Cosby after returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the first quarter Sunday. The Steelers' AFC North title chances are slim, but they do have an inside track on a wild-card slot in the playoffs.

Nothing had changed by the Mourning After.

"We're still looking up," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said.

At the first-place Cincinnati Bengals.

It seems so strange.

The Bengals?

"They're definitely a better team than they've had in the past," Farrior said. "You've got to give them credit. They're the team to beat in the division right now. They've earned it. They're in a great spot."

So are the Steelers, hard as that is to believe after their deflating 18-12 home loss Sunday to the Bengals. Repeat after me: The world is not ending. The Steelers are in a terrific spot in terms of making the playoffs as a wild-card team. And as long as they get in ...

It's hard to think the Bengals won't win the AFC North Division because they've beaten the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens twice and have all the tiebreakers. Their next three games are at Oakland and home against Cleveland and Detroit. They have only two games left against teams with winning records -- on the road at Minnesota and San Diego. Even if they lose both and go 5-2 down the stretch, the Steelers would have to go 7-0 to take the division title. That seems unlikely even if safety Troy Polamalu isn't seriously injured.

Sure, it's always possible the Bengals could get full of themselves and implode. "It's scary because everybody's going to be patting us on the back and telling us how good we are," quarterback Carson Palmer said. But they appear to have the leadership -- from coach Marvin Lewis on down -- to deal with their success. "I'm glad where we are," Lewis said. "But a lot of people left the Steelers for dead after we beat them there in 2005. They proved there's still a lot of football left. That's a lesson learned for our guys."

The Bengals were 9-3 and the Steelers 7-5 after the Bengals came to Heinz Field in early December '05 and won, 38-31. Jacksonville (9-3), Kansas City (8-4) and San Diego (8-4) had edges over the Steelers in the wild-card chase. I'm not sure, but I think the coroner was called in.

Prematurely, as it turned out.

The Steelers won their final four games in '05, made the playoffs as a wild-card team and beat the Bengals in Cincinnati on their way to Super Bowl XL. "I'd love to play 'em again and have the chance to do that same thing," Steelers guard Trai Essex said Sunday.

I see it happening.

Not necessarily another Super Bowl, although I'm not going to rule that out based on the loss Sunday.

That third game with the Bengals.

The Steelers are 6-3, clearly in much better shape than in '05. Their main competition for one of the two wild-card slots is San Diego (6-3) or Denver (6-3), Houston (5-4), Jacksonville (5-4) and Baltimore (4-4 before its game at Cleveland last night). That's not exactly Murderers' Row.

San Diego is going to win the AFC West. Denver has lost three in a row and should continue to tumble because a) it's not very good, b) it could be without injured quarterback Kyle Orton (ankle) for a time, and c) it has home games left with San Diego and the New York Giants and road games at Indianapolis and Philadelphia. Even if the Broncos survive all of that, they would lose the tiebreaker to the Steelers because of the Steelers' victory in Denver last week. The Steelers also own the tiebreaker against San Diego -- should it come to that -- because of their victory against the Chargers here in October.

It's hard to take Houston and Jacksonville seriously as playoff contenders. The Texans, in their eighth season, have never finished better than 8-8. The Jaguars were beaten, 41-0, by Seattle last month. Really, how good can they be?

Then, there's Baltimore. I have to admit, the Ravens worry me, assuming that they beat the pathetic Browns last night. They still have both games with the Steelers to play. It wouldn't be shocking if they won both, although that seems unlikely. But even if they do, they still have games with Indianapolis at home and at Green Bay on a Monday night. And remember, there are two wild-card spots.

"We're OK," Farrior said. "We're a very resilient team. We've got a great head coach who will keep us focused. We've got a great group of guys who have been through this before."

The man is right.

The Steelers will be just fine as long as they take care of their business, starting Sunday in Kansas City against the dreadful Chiefs. There's no real reason to think -- their lousy kickoff coverage aside -- that the loss to the Bengals will be anything more than just that, one loss. Four of the Steelers' final seven games are against teams with a losing record, six if the Ravens lost last night. Shame on them if they don't win enough to get to the playoffs.

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on November 17, 2009 at 12:00 am

Bengals best in AFC North?

Monday, November 16, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Early in the fourth quarter of a game that had long since forfeited any chance of turning up on ESPN Classic, it actually began to appear as though the Steelers were going to lose to the Cincinnati Bengals twice in seven weeks, and the reaction was reflexive:

You're pullin' my leg.

No wait, or was that what quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said to Bengals linebacker Brandon Johnson, who was quite literally pulling his leg as Big Ben lay in a pile of humanity after sneaking the football to a first down at the Cincinnati 11?

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer throws against the Steelers in the third quarter.

Johnson stood behind the pile, reached in, and yanked No. 7's foot like a guy trying to drag a deer out from under a Ford Taurus. Seeing this, Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu arrived and threw Johnson to the turf of Heinz Field. And though the Steelers had to settle for Jeff Reed's fourth and final field goal and a seriously frayed 12-12 knot at that point, the dramatic theme of the game's final 11:20 had been established.

The Bengals and Steelers essentially threw each other to the turf for the balance of the show, and it was the Bengals who got up and wobbled off with an 18-12 victory and a one-game lead in the fast-calcifying AFC North Division. Cincinnati appears to be the best team in the you're-pulling-my-leg division, if only because the Steelers' usually heroic defense couldn't make one of Mike Tomlin's ready-splash plays on either of two Bengals field-goal drives in the fourth quarter. One lasted a clock-swallowing nine plays, the other 11.

"Part of the reason why big plays weren't there was because of the Cincinnati Bengals and Carson Palmer," Tomlin said admiringly. "They take very good care of the football; they make great decisions."

The decision to have no turnovers is always useful, but nothing states the obvious so acutely in this regard as the fact that the Steelers have lost three games this season, the very three games in which they did not force a turnover. In their six wins, they've come up with at least one, up to as many as four.

"I dropped a pick I should have had," said safety Ryan Clark, back in the lineup after his high-altitude respite in Denver. "It's hard to lose games that you thought you played well enough to win, but we've got to do more."

You wouldn't have to walk far from Clark's locker to get a decent argument on the point that the Steelers played well enough to win, but there was no disputing that first statement. When Chad Ochocinco broke his route too sharply and Palmer's delivery came well behind the Mad Tweeter, the football arrived at Clark's belly near midfield with a shrieking invitation to make the play that would likely have flipped the result. Instead, the Bengals converted a third-and-5 on the next play and went ahead, 15-12, seven plays later.

Physical mistakes, coaches love to say, are simply going to happen; it's the mental mistakes that kill you. Yesterday's killer came courtesy of James Harrison, who got pushed in the back just after the whistle by Andrew Whitworth, a monstrous Bengals left tackle, just as the clock flashed down toward four-and-a-half minutes. Harrison responded by punching Whitworth in the helmet, drawing a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary inexplicable bone-headedness that brought the ball almost to midfield.

"We've got to play sharper than that," Tomlin said. "Regardless of the circumstances that led up to it or whatever happened, that's just part of our day. That wasn't winning football."

In a situation that yelped for the very kind of critical defensive play that made many of Dick LeBeau's fella's famous, the closest they got to a delivery came from third-string defensive end Nick Eason, who nailed Bernard Scott for a 2-yard loss on third-and-3 at the Steelers' 23 on the play prior to the two-minute warning. That forced a field goal and got Ben the ball back, trailing by only six with 1:50 left, but Ben was in the middle of his least productive game of the season. He completed exactly one of his final nine passes in a game when offensive coordinator Bruce Arians had no interest in running at all. The Steelers ran 40 pass plays, 17 rushing plays, a terrible mix in just about any circumstance.

Thus we saw the first Steelers game of the past 26 (including the playoffs) that did not include an offensive touchdown, as touchdowns are difficult when you're converting 3 of 15 third-down opportunities.

"There's still a lot of football left," defensive end Brett Keisel said cheerily, perhaps aware that the defense has allowed only one offensive touchdown or none in five consecutive games, "but this is the stretch where great teams step up and make plays when it counts."

Yes it is.

In theory.

Gene Collier can be reached at More articles by this author

First published on November 16, 2009 at 12:00 am

Here's hoping Polamalu will return soon

Monday, November 16, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers' collective psyche after a day when their offense did nothing, their defense couldn't make a late stand and their special teams were absolutely atrocious in a brutal home loss to a division opponent? It's just fine, thank you very much. "The season didn't end today," linebacker LaMarr Woodley growled. "There's a lot of football left to be played."

But All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu's left knee? That might be a much different story. His potentially serious injury yesterday was, by far, the worst part of the hurtful 18-12 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, a defeat that left the Steelers in a jackpot as far as the AFC North Division race goes and means they probably will have to take the dangerous wild-card road to the playoffs.

"Not Troy. Not again," safety Ryan Clark said.

Your sentiments exactly, right?

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers defensive backs Troy Polamalu and William Gay break up a pass intended for Bengals wide receiver Laveranues Coles.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin revealed little about Polamalu's injury, saying only that he was off at the hospital for an MRI. It's encouraging that the players acted as if the injury wasn't season-ending; ordinarily, they aren't deceitful enough to hide the truth. Then again, the players might not have known how significant Polamalu's problem is. No one was quite sure when he was hurt, although it is believed it happened when he tackled running back Cedric Benson for a 3-yard loss during the Bengals' first possession.

"Normally, he sits right next to me on the bench," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "He was there when we came off the field and then he was gone. It was like he's a ghost."

If Polamalu has to miss at least a few games, which seems likely, it will be a tough blow for him. He was just starting to get back to his otherworldly self after missing four games because of an injury to the same knee in the opener against the Tennessee Titans. He had interceptions in two of the previous three games and, even more significantly, showed the closing burst that separates him from all other defensive players.

If Polamalu is out for a long time, if not for the year, it might be too much for the Steelers to overcome. It's one thing having a star missing games early in the season. It's something much worse having him missing them down the stretch. The Steelers are lucky, to be sure, Tyrone Carter is a wonderful backup. "I thought he made a bunch of big run-stopping plays today," Keisel said. "Every guy in this locker room has complete faith in T.C." No doubt that's true. But Carter is no Polamalu. No one is.

"Troy isn't just the best player on our team," Clark said. "He's the best player in the league. ...

"If he's only out a week or two, the defense probably can sustain and win games. But if he's out longer? Playing against the [Baltimore] Ravens twice? That would be tough.

"But this is the NFL. One way or the other, you've got to go on. No one is going to say, 'Y'all lost Troy. We'll give you a break.' It doesn't work that way. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us."

If the Steelers do fall short in the division chase or -- worse -- in the wild-card race, they'll look back at this game the same way they will at their 23-20 loss in Cincinnati Sept. 27 when, playing without Polamalu, they blew a 20-9 lead in the fourth quarter. "This feels like we let 'em get away again," linebacker James Farrior said.

The offense couldn't get in the end zone, not one time. "We were kind of guessing and we were a little timid out there," offensive tackle Max Starks said, observations you never want to hear on a NFL Sunday.

The defense couldn't prevent the Bengals from running off more than five minutes of clock down the stretch or keep them from stretching their lead to six points with a field goal even though Benson -- the league's No. 2 rusher coming in -- was out with a hip problem after just seven carries. "That's on us," Woodley said.

And the special teams, well, what would a Steelers game be without an opponent's kickoff return for a touchdown? Rookie Bernard Scott's 96-yard return was the third in four games against the Steelers, leaving Tomlin flummoxed. "I'd put myself out there if I thought I could do the job," he said.

Add it all up and you get one of the biggest wins in the Bengals' not-so-glorious history.

"Very sweet. Very sweet. I'm almost diabetic right now, it's so sweet," linebacker Brandon Johnson gushed.

The Bengals, who have made the playoffs once since 1990, are in a fabulous spot even though their 7-2 record is just one game better than the Steelers' 6-3 mark. They are 5-0 in division games and have swept the Steelers and Ravens. The Steelers can win the division only by finishing with a better record than the Bengals. A tie won't do it. That means if the Bengals go 4-3 down the stretch, the Steelers would have to go 6-1.

"They're going to be the division champs," Clark said, flatly. "I know they haven't won it yet. But we'll probably have to win out to win it."

That's unlikely even with a healthy Polamalu. It seems darn near impossible without him for very long.

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on November 16, 2009 at 12:00 am

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Santonio Holmes has come a long way from 'Muck City'

Sunday, November 15, 2009
By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette

Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes knows his history: "Muck City," the nickname for Belle Glade, Fla., where he grew up, is tattooed on his hands.

Bill Hillgrove of the Steelers Radio Network gave voice to the historic moment from Super Bowl XLIII: "And now the burden is on that Steelers offense again. Forty-three seconds to go ... ."

BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- The worn-out sign welcoming motorists to one of America's poorest of cities boasts about its richest of grounds: Her soil is her future. Next door squats the Pioneer Growers Co-Op and the Glades Correctional Institution. Across State Road 80 is the crop-duster airport, the Glades Work Camp prison and the tallest structure for miles, one of the three mills remaining from the seven amid Big Sugar's high times.

The Steelers' Santonio Holmes sprang from this muck. He grew up in the projects of this town. He grew up on what is considered not only the wrong side of Palm Beach County but the wrong side of the Cross State Highway, directly across from his old high school. The place carries a different designation: Belle Glade Camp, where 2000 U.S. Census figures show 700 of the 1,100 residents live below the poverty line, a median family income of $17,000 yearly. He grew up in a single-parent household, surrounded on three sides by cane fields and deep in the legendary muck, the dark, enriched soil that produces one-quarter of America's sugar, rice, corn, cabbage and a crop of 30 NFL players.

He once wrote "muck city" across his face, on eye-black patches. Then, in a 2007 celebration of cousin Fred Taylor's inaugural Pro Bowl, a South Beach tattoo artist indelibly inked it above Mr. Holmes' knuckles: Muck on the right, City on the left. He knows his roots like the back of the hands that he'll see every time he stretches to catch a pass today at Heinz Field in the Steelers' AFC North collision with leader Cincinnati.

"I always refer back to everything I did as a kid, growing up, where I came from ---- Belle Glade. I even have it tattooed on my hands, Muck City," he said earlier this week, showing his Super Bowl XLIII MVP hands. "So definitely I'm always reminded of where I came from, where I grew up, just how rough it was. It's right there, visible to me, every day."

His lifelong friend, Fred Robinson Jr., grew up in the same Okeechobee Center project and on the same path. He ran rabbits with him, as they call the chase through the burned or freshly cut cane fields hunting the animals for food and money. He sprinted down a track and flew with a football to state championships alongside Mr. Holmes, earning a Division I scholarship way up north and a potential escape route the same as Mr. Holmes did. Yet Mr. Robinson admittedly made bad decisions, wound up at Division II Clarion University in Pennsylvania and then back home, employed by the area's second-biggest business behind agriculture; he's a guard at one of the three Florida prison facilities here.

"To stay focused through real trials and tribulations," began Mr. Robinson, standing on the same Bethel Court street where they spent their youths. "His mom working from morning to night. At 10, 11 years old, thrust into 'fatherhood' [caring for his two younger brothers]. Didn't even understand what it meant to be The Man. But he's done even the adult thing as a little kid.

"You look around here. You see the poverty around here," added Mr. Robinson, whose father paid for Mr. Holmes' registration onto his first football team, the Peewee Eagles. "You don't know struggle until you go through a struggle."

It's a variation on the theme of Western Pennsylvania kids avoiding the mills and mines of their forefathers. On the southeastern shores of Lake Okeechobee, a world away from tony West Palm Beach 45 miles east, boys zip past the rows of 7-foot-high, sharp-edged crops but never want to work in them, so instead they play on fields far more manicured, soft and green.

Chuck Finder/Post-Gazette

This rubbish-strewn house is where Santonio Holmes was raised in his early years, on what is known as "the alley" in the Okeechobee Center Project of Belle Glade, Fla. When drugs and danger visited that duplex, his mother moved the family to another part of the project.

Mr. Holmes' mother, Patricia Brown, sent her firstborn as a 10th-grader to live with her husband and his stepfather, Little Moss, who brought him on weekends to the fields where he has toiled October to May for 34 years.

"That was his whole thinking, taking him to work ..." she started to say.

"... Show him the value of work," the stepfather added, "how to work, but don't do this kind of work."

One searing day in Georgia, performing the job of "push-down man," this high-school kid continually shoved boxes of cane down a ramp and from there ran a different route.

"After that, he didn't want to see another field, " proudly said his mother, herself an employee for the past quarter-century in cornfields that cause her to board a bus by 4 in the morning from November to July.

Mr. Holmes, 25, remembered: "Man, my whole body cramped, head to toe. I was like, 'You know what, Mom, this is not for me. Dad, you can have this ... I ain't doing no kind of hard labor. I'm strictly about sports and school.' That's what I did from then on. I told them I was never coming back to those fields."

" ... [Ben Roethlisberger] gets the snap. He's back. He pumps. He scrambles around. ..."

Chasing dreams all began in the muck, with dead critters in his school backpack or on a coat hanger.

"I was born and raised in Belle Glade," said Willie McDonald, the father of NFL draftee Ray McDonald Sr. and grandfather of Ray McDonald Jr., of the San Francisco 49ers, the former dean of students at Glades Central Community High and the track coach to 30 future NFLers.

"I know exactly what the situation is. You ran rabbits to make a little extra spending money. Running rabbits also made you quicker. You have to cut. You have to turn." You have to be as elusive as your prey while traversing the soft, near-black soil.

"Every kid here grows up chasing rabbits, not out of sport but support," added Jessie Hester, a native and a former NFL receiver who coaches the Glades Central Raiders. "Some of the kids had to eat. It was out of necessity ... to survive."

So important was racing after rabbits, said Mr. Robinson's stepfather, Johnny Huggins, that pursuers failed to notice hazards such as bobcats, wild boars or worse: "You jump in the canal after a rabbit, 'I got it!' " Pause. Stare. " 'Uh, was that alligator in there the whole time?' "

In Mr. Holmes' case, his old track coach cites another explanation.

"We go back before he was born," Willie McDonald said, referring to Santonio Holmes Sr., with whom the Steelers receiver has had little contact throughout his life. "I coached his father in track. Matter of fact, they ran the same events: 400 meters and the 400-meter relay. Same running style. Finished the same."

Environment or genetics, he is a product of the muck that doesn't easily come off hands, shoes, bloodlines.

Whatever propelled him, he won state titles in both football and track.

When the University of Miami Hurricanes signed Ryan Moore from Orlando instead of him, Mr. Holmes pushed north to perform so well for Ohio State after red-shirting in its 2002 national-championship season that as a junior he was drafted No. 25 overall by the team he always chose while playing Madden NFL video games.

Far from the fields where Edward R. Murrow in 1960 taped his "Harvest of Shame" documentary about the plight of migrant workers, far from the town without a single mall, far from a place some 18 miles from the nearest modern-day sign of civilization -- a Walmart -- this rabbit hunter made his mark.

"... Throws it back corner of the end zone. Santonio with a touchdown! Santonio Holmes! I don't know how he did it! ... "

Santonio Holmes Jr. didn't magically appear on his tippy-toes in the rear, right corner of the Raymond James Stadium end zone late the first night in February. It just seemed that way to his own children.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Santonio Holmes celebrates the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Steelers' Super Bowl victory in February.

"When the celebration started, we had to wake them up," Ms. Brown said. "I was wondering: 'How can children be out for a football game?' "

"I was asleep on the last play; they told me about it," admitted T.J., 8, the son Mr. Holmes had at 17 and had to leave behind to attend Ohio State. Later came brother Nicori, 5, and sister Saniya, 3. These are the children with whom he curled up that night, in his Tampa hotel room, while teammates partied with celebrities from Snoop Dogg to Jesse Jackson.

"We wrestled with him," T.J. said. "We watched a replay of the game." And, oh, yeah, they took in the animated "Madagascar" sequel, too.

T.J., hospitalized for days on end since infancy, is the reason his father performs charity work for sickle cell anemia. Doctors ultimately found the sickle cell trait in both T.J.'s father and grandfather. It is why Mr. Holmes stumps for the charity, why he auctioned off his Super Bowl gloves for nearly $100,000.

"It allowed me to open up different doors," he said of being the Super Bowl MVP. "It allowed me to put my name out there and raise an awareness ... ."

The one-time father figure who watched over his brothers Kenneth, three years younger, and Devontae, seven years younger, still adjusts to true fatherhood.

"I never thought he could play football while taking care of his brother, being a big brother and a daddy. I thought that was too much on him," his mother said.

Then she saw him this past summer as his three children spent much of the offseason with him for a change rather than with their mothers in Georgia and Ohio. She added, "He's getting better. At first, ooooooh, they were driving him up the wall. He was pulling what little hair he had on his head out. He's getting patience and is getting better, I guess because he has them the whole summer and not just the weekends or holidays."

Their time together was hardly interrupted by his post-Super Bowl celebrity. There was a next-day parade and later a springtime first-pitch at a Braves-Pirates exhibition game, both at Disney World. There were the ESPY sports awards in Los Angeles, accompanied by his kids and mother. There were appearances on Jay Leno, David Letterman and BET. But there wasn't a daily grind as one might expect.

"There's not much there there," said expert Bob Dorfman, creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. "The checkered past hurts him -- the drug possession, the domestic violence [despite charges being dropped or dismissed]. I guess the perfect example of how marketers are hedging their bets is: Even winning the MVP and the 'I'm going to Disney World' thing, he still had to have [Ben] Roethlisberger go with him.

"He's still pretty young; he's got a lot of years left; maybe he does have a shot down the road. But, yeah, it's going to take more than that one iconic catch to make him more of an iconic marketing figure."

That circus of a week in Tampa, Mr. Holmes tried to use the Super Bowl platform to talk about how he sold drugs as a 7-year-old on a notorious corner in downtown Belle Glade, and the confession seemed to backfire on him. After all, barely three months earlier, he had admitted to smoking marijuana when he had been pulled over by Pittsburgh police.

"I think the story just got misconstrued," he said of his tale about how drugs led to break-ins and bullet holes in the project home shared with relatives -- one from which his mother soon after moved her boys. His attempted message: "I'm here now, and you can be doing the same thing if you choose the right path."

Still, as did receiving mate Hines Ward before him as Super Bowl XL MVP, he tried to keep the big game from altering him. "His life changed, but Santonio still remains the same," Mr. Robinson said. See, not many humans get stopped by kids striking your pose: tippy-toes down, hands outstretched. Not many get to autograph a photo of such a catch for the greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice. Not many get to buy their mother and stepfather a new home midway to West Palm Beach, although they refuse his numerous requests to stop working the fields ("That's been their way of living for the past 20-plus years," he said with a shrug).

"I was like, 'Come on, man, you got to make that catch,' " Mr. McDonald Jr., of the 49ers, recalled yelling after Mr. Holmes had a Roethlisberger pass slip through his mitts in the end zone's left corner on the forgettable play before. "He came back the next play and made, heck, what I think is the greatest play in the history of the Super Bowl. End of the game, game on the line, down three points? There isn't anything better than that."

"He made a whole city smile," Mr. Robinson said.

And he wasn't talking about Pittsburgh.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The man behind the Steelers' line

Friday, November 13, 2009

Larry Zierlein never had flashbacks of his time in Vietnam, just dreams.

"I dreamt I had to go back," he said, during our conversation on Veterans Day. "That would wake me up."

Growing up in Lenora, Kan., Zierlein, the Steelers' 63-year-old offensive line coach, was captivated by comic-book depictions of World War II and the Korean War. As a junior at Emporia State (Kan.) College, he determined it was now or never and joined the Marines.

Without telling his parents until after the fact, Zierlein signed up for a two-year volunteer program. That led to boot camp in San Diego and war preparation at Camp Pendleton. Before long, he found himself in South Vietnam.

And it was nothing like the comic books.

"In the comic books, they were constantly fighting; there was never any down time," Zierlein said. "In Vietnam, there were long, long lulls, and (the North Vietnamese) almost dictated the pace of the war. When they were ready to engage you, they would engage you.

"You didn't know where they were, or, in some cases, who they were."

Zierlein's unit sometimes lived underground during his one-year tour and did a turn at dreaded Con Thien, a U.S. combat base noted for its proximity to major North Vietnamese artillery. Con Thien would become the subject of a TIME Magazine piece depicting the war's horrors.

Zierlein, reluctant to go into detail, acknowledged that he lost friends and was lucky to come home alive. He has a photograph of himself and the men in his unit, taken early on. They agreed that if any lost his life, the photo would be sent to his loved ones.

"It sounds kind of a grotesque now," Zierlein said. "We said, 'Let's get a picture of each other looking off in the distance like we're contemplating something, and if we don't make it home, send that picture back to your family.' It was kind of hokey."

When his tour finally ended, Zierlein made the abrupt journey home.

On Dec. 24, 1967, he departed at noon from Okinawa, Japan, arrived in San Francisco at 6 a.m. (gaining six hours) and took a flight to Denver, where his parents picked him up and took him out for a cheeseburger.

"The strangest feeling was landing in San Francisco, because so many times you think, 'I'm never going to make it back,' " Zierlein said. "All of a sudden those wheels hit down, and you say, 'Wow, we're here.' "

That's when problems would begin for many vets, though Zierlein was not among those afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. He isn't sure why.

How did the war change him?

"Didn't," he said. "I just grew up a little bit."

When a shoulder injury ended his football career at Fort Hays (Kan.) State, Zierlein reached a crossroads. He was married (he and wife Marcia have three children) but had to quit his construction job because of his bum shoulder.

Then-Fort Hays football coach Tom Stromgren asked Zierlein to help with spring ball.

"First day on the field," Zierlein recalled, "I said, 'This is what I want to do.'"

Thirty-nine years, 14 jobs and 13 cities later, Zierlein won a Super Bowl ring, last season. His son, Lance, a sports radio talk-show host in Houston, sat in the stands that night and thought of how his father was coaching at the University of Houston in the late 1970's and turned down an offer to work for Jimmy Johnson at Oklahoma State.

That might have fast-tracked Zierlein's NFL career, but he was loyal to Houston and wanted his family to grow roots there.

"The life of a coach and a coach's wife is extremely difficult," Lance Zierlein said. "When the Steelers won, my mom had tears in her eyes."

Like most Steelers employees, Zierlein humbly goes about his duties. His name doesn't surface much, except for criticism of the line -- rarely warranted anymore -- and his e-mail blunder from a few years ago, when he accidentally forwarded an off-color video to league personnel.

Zierlein's players swear by him and sometimes feel like swearing at him. He cracks them up with one-liners but has a hard-core teaching style that accentuates precise technique.

"He can be cranky in the morning," said center Justin Hartwig, laughing.

Hartwig and tackle Max Starks said Zierlein rarely speaks of Vietnam, though the subject arose last week. Hartwig demanded to know what Zierlein looked like back then because the coach had been telling them he was a "muscled-up, good-looking guy."

Zierlein promised to bring in the aforementioned photo. Hartwig grew serious when he spoke of it. He couldn't imagine what his coach had endured.

Few of us could.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Steelers react to Roethlisberger's 'E:60' talk

By Mark Kaboly, Daily News Sports Editor
Thursday, November 12, 2009

News that franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger called himself a bad teammate early in his career caught Steelers players off-guard Wednesday.

Roethlisberger made the admission one night earlier during a national television interview on ESPN's primetime news program, "E:60."

"That surprises me," said defensive lineman Brett Keisel, who is Roethlisberger's closest friend on the team. "That doesn't sound like something he would say."

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks to pass against the Denver Broncos in a game earlier this week.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review

In a 10-minute interview Tuesday that also focused on pending sexual assault allegations against Roethlisberger, the Steelers' quarterback talked about the relationships he has forged with his teammates since entering the NFL in 2004.

"I wasn't a good leader early on and I wasn't the best teammate I could've been the first couple of years," Roethlisberger said. "I was invincible; I was Superman. I was probably a little too confident, a little too cocky at times."

During his first couple of years in the NFL, it wasn't uncommon for Roethlisberger to isolate himself from people, teammates included. It was common practice during meals at training camp for Roethlisberger to either sit at a table by himself or take his food back to his dorm room.

Even while throwing a single-season franchise-record 32 touchdown passes in 2007, Roethlisberger was snubbed for the team MVP award, with the honor going to first-year starting linebacker James Harrison.

Keisel, though, never got the impression that Roethlisberger was a bad teammate.

"I don't think that was the consensus of the team back then," Keisel said. "Ben came in and had a lot on his shoulders right away. He had a lot of pressure."

Roethlisberger did not meet with the media yesterday.

Said veteran defensive back Deshea Townsend: "As far as he was when he first got here, he has always been a good teammate. He has always been a guy we've gotten along with well in the locker room."

Linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior, who dresses only a few lockers away from Roethlisberger, feels the same.

"I wouldn't say he wasn't a good teammate," Farrior said. "It was just, I think, a lot of things were happening around him. Being a quarterback of a good team, you have a lot of expectations that you might not realize."

Toss in that Roethlisberger enjoyed unparalleled success over his first two NFL seasons — he won 14 consecutive games as a rookie and a Super Bowl in his second campaign — only made it worse. Farrior said Roethlisberger's unmatched achievements early in his career put demands on his time that in turn isolated the franchise quarterback him from his teammates.

"It's tough for a young guy sometimes being cast into that spotlight and that role if you're not used to it," Farrior said. "It can get to you, and it might seem like you're distancing yourself from everybody."

Roethlisberger said it remained that way until backup quarterback Charlie Batch pulled him aside before the 2008 season for a heart-to-heart talk.

"Some things were easy to hear and some things were tough to hear," Roethlisberger said on "E:60." "Charlie helped me to become a good teammate and friend to a lot of these guys."

Batch declined comment on Roethlisberger's situation yesterday.

Roethlisberger started to make an effort to spend more time with his teammates, especially his offensive line. He has taken the linemen on many excursions, including in September when he hosted WWE's "Monday Night Raw" in Wilkes-Barre.

"I think it made a big difference," Roethlisberger said.

After the conversation with Batch in 2008, Roethlisberger has been playing his best football.

He led the team to its second Super Bowl victory just months after Batch's intervention and has followed that with a record-breaking first half of this season. He was named a Steelers' co-captain for a second consecutive year.

In leading the Steelers to a 6-2 record, Roethlisberger has thrown for 2,295 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He has completed 70.6 percent of his passes. He is on pace to become the first Steelers quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in a season.

"The biggest thing is that he opened up to everybody," Keisel said.

Added Farrior: "I think he's matured over the years, and I think it's come full circle. You can tell that he cares about everybody on the team. Now, he's a great teammate."