Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Absence of Steelers' Polamalu palpable

Wednesday, September 30, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu has not played since Week One.

Can we expect any sort of recantation from Troy Polamalu?

I mean since Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora has gone ahead and broken the recantation ice, taking back Monday his comments from Sunday in which he trashed his own place-kicker minutes after a loss to the Chicago Bears.

Having slept on it, the head coach decided he should have been a little more temperate, a little more charitable.

So he recanted.

Two weeks earlier, Polamalu had done the rhetorical opposite, being too charitable, too gracious in his assessment of the Steelers' predicament upon learning they would be without him for the next three to six weeks. Troy said the Steelers' defense might actually be better off without him, which was as demonstrably wrong as anything Mora said.

But Troy was trying to be nice, which is why he can't recant.

You can't recant that.

You can't recant the publicly stated opinion that, with Ty Carter filling in for your inimitable All-Pro and the remainder of the defense scheduled for significant week-to-week improvement anyway, everything ought to be fine, if not better.

Even after consecutive fourth-quarter defensive collapses that submerged Mike Tomlin's team at 1-2, I wouldn't anticipate a recant.

I wouldn't anticipate much improvement, either.

"Antonio Gates is a matchup problem when you have a guy like Troy [Polamalu], so, needless to say, when you don't have a guy like Troy in a week like this, we've got to get in the lab a little bit," Tomlin said yesterday as his Troy-less defense considers a looming confrontation with the San Diego Chargers' tight end, among other spectacular lightning bolts. "We've got to figure out a way to slow this guy down."

Well, good luck there in the lab, because two weeks into this no-Troy-in-Mudville funk, it has become all too obvious exactly what No. 43 means to the Steelers' defense, and I'm not just talking about the nettlesome little factoid that all interceptions ceased immediately the moment Polamalu wobbled to the sideline after helping to block a field goal in the opener against Tennessee.

"Troy understands the game," Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was explaining this time last week. "Prior to his getting hurt in the first half of the Tennessee game, he made three of the finest defensive football plays I've seen in a long time."

All it would have taken was one fine play to seal a victory in the final minutes in Cincinnati. All it would have taken was one fine play to seal another one in Chicago 10 days ago. A little bit o' Troy goes a long way, so don't think for a minute that this particular knee injury isn't the difference between the Steelers starting 3-0 and instead being within a whisker of 0-3.

For all tangible damage done to Dick LeBeau's defense when you remove Polamalu (the Steelers are 14-3 when he intercepts, for example), the intangible impact is probably worse. Troy's absence appears to have a deflating effect at all levels of the scheme, unless such irritants as James Harrison's projected sack total of five for 2009 (after a club-record 16 a year ago) and LaMarr Woodley's projected sack total of zero for 2009 (after 11.5 a year ago) are wholly separate issues.

"We haven't changed what we're doing schematically in terms of how we attack people because Troy's not back there," Tomlin insisted yesterday. "It may look different because he has a unique skill set and he can do some unique things. But our play calling hasn't changed at all."

That might be, but it has to have a chilling effect, at least subconsciously, because once Troy is gone from the secondary, what you do with the people in front of it almost has to be more cautious. The Steelers had five sacks in September. That used to be a day's work. Pressure is perhaps most notably absent with opponents in the red zone, where they're 5 for 7 this season, including four touchdowns.

Chargers sniper Philip Rivers, one of two quarterbacks taken ahead of Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft (Eli Manning being the other), likely hasn't seen a Steelers defense so vulnerable to his talents and those of the rangy wideout Vincent Jackson.

Rivers has 739 passing yards in San Diego's previous two games, with the Jackson target accounting for 261 of those. Come Sunday night, with Troy still likely two weeks from ready, who will really be surprised to see further evidence that Rivers-Jackson is one of the hottest connections in the AFC.

The Steelers will wear their throwback uniforms for this prime timer, but the audience doesn't want a defense that reminds them of the '60s, only of the first half Sept. 10.

Gene Collier can be reached at

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First published on September 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Penguins get Stanley Cup rings

Wednesday, September 30, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby displays his Stanley Cup ring.

The Penguins presented their championship rings in numerical order at a private dinner last night, which meant that captain Sidney Crosby had to wait and wait and wait for the serious bling that was to come. It was, of course, worth the time to place an ornament with the heft of a rock on his finger.

Crosby showed off the white and yellow gold band decorated with 167 diamonds, which was enough ice to replicate the surface at Mellon Arena.

"It's a pretty nice ring," Crosby said with classic understatement.

Rings were made for 52 players, coaches, staff and executives, and most were presented in person at a dinner at LeMont Restaurant on Mount Washington. The ceremony was held three days before the Penguins begin defense of their title, which team officials hoped would mark the end of the celebration and get the players in the proper frame of mind to begin another title journey.

"It's a good way to close it off," Crosby said. "Once you get a taste of that, that's a lot of motivation. We want to move on."

Each ring featured a player's name and number as well as a list of the four playoff victories. Tribute was also paid to the two other Stanley Cups won by the franchise. The jewelry, manufactured by Intergold, was designed in consultation with Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma.

Billy Guerin picked up the theme of the Penguins enjoying the moment before getting back to work against the New York Rangers. The Stanley Cup banner will be raised before the game Friday.

"The ring is the icing on the cake," he said. "It is hardware, but it's not hard to wear. Just like everything else with the Pittsburgh Penguins, it's first class. But now it's back to work. Everybody wants to beat us, and we want to win again."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Steelers defense too passive

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Getty Images

CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 27: Carson Palmer(notes) #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws the ball during the NFL game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium on September 27, 2009 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Bengals won 23-20. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

I'm prepared to tell you why, even though the Cincinnati Bengals and Chicago Bears picked the Steelers defense clean in the fourth quarter like a Thanksgiving turkey, the problem isn't with the players as much as with the team's late-game approach.

Normally, it's stupid to disagree with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He has Hall of Fame credentials as a player and coach. His defense has been ranked No. 1 in the NFL the past two seasons and is currently No. 8.

LeBeau knows more about defense than everyone in the Steeler Nation combined. He's a living legend.

That said, LeBeau's defense hasn't been overly aggressive in 2009, particularly in late-game situations.

The Steelers aren't blitzing opposing quarterbacks as much in the fourth quarter. They're playing more zone defense than they did in winning Super Bowl XLIII last season. What's more, they're not playing enough man-to-man defense featuring cornerback Ike Taylor.

Not wanting to get beat deep, the Steelers defense settled for a slow death in the fourth quarter of both losses this season. Instead of attacking, the players sat back in coverage and kept everything in front of them.

Relatively free from the Steelers' rush, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer and Chicago's Jay Cutler combined to direct their teams to a total of four scoring drives in the fourth quarter.

It follows that the Steelers will face more of the same short-passing attack when San Diego visits Heinz Field on Sunday.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers will watch tape of the Steelers and see that Palmer and Cutler had plenty of time to check down to open receivers underneath coverage. Rivers will notice the Steelers blitzed a defensive back only once and utilized a four-man rush in 15 pass plays in Cincinnati's final two drives in the fourth quarter.

Defensive back Keiwan Ratliff's blitz forced Palmer to scramble to his right and resulted in an incompletion, even though Laveranues Coles was wide open for a touchdown on the other side of the field. Because of the pressure, Palmer couldn't turn his body to see Coles.

"With the way our guys played up front, there was no reason to leave the pocket," Palmer said. "The pockets were so nice with a lot of room to step up and throw, there wasn't a reason to step outside the pocket until late in the game."

For two straight weeks, the defense came up short in the fourth quarter.

But even without injured Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, the Steelers have enough personnel to be disruptive if LeBeau turns his players loose.

Last year, Taylor's ability to not only play man-to-man but also defend half the field permitted the Steelers to zone the other half of the field while bringing an extra defender in the box — either as a pass rusher or run stopper.

Taylor's strength in man-to-man coverage enables the Steelers to blitz more and gives the defense a better opportunity to pressure the quarterback. Taylor was at his best matched against Cincinnati's Chad Ochocinco in solo coverage, and he broke up three passes on the Bengals' final drive.

"They brought some pressure in the first half," Palmer said. "They did a good job of bringing more guys than we could block and covering our hot routes. Our coaches made some great adjustments in the locker room. We played more on our toes as opposed to sitting back on our heels. We played more aggressively and it paid off."

What the Steelers defense did to teams last year, their opponents are now doing to them.

Steelers' 2008 draft class a bust so far

Tuesday, September 29, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall was not on the field for an offensive snap in Sunday's loss at Cincinnati.

They say it takes three, four, maybe even five years to fairly evaluate an NFL draft class. Running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed are doing their worst to disprove that. It's almost as if they are trying to prove that the Steelers' 2008 draft class is a bust.

It's bad enough that Sweed -- a second-round pick in '08 -- dropped a touchdown pass in the 23-20 loss Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals. We've come to expect that from him. He has been awful. But it's much worse that Mendenhall -- the first-round choice -- did such a poor job preparing for the game that he was benched by irritated coach Mike Tomlin. This guy is supposed to be a professional? He certainly doesn't look like one.

Mendenhall's actions really are reprehensible. "Rashard wasn't on the details this week," Tomlin said of his decision not to play him on offense. How can that be? How can Mendenhall let his teammates down like that? How can he let himself down?

"It was a bunch of little stuff," Mendenhall said when asked what Tomlin meant.

I'm guessing it was more than that. Certainly, Tomlin didn't consider it to be "little stuff."
Coaches rarely call out a player publicly and embarrass him. That's a drastic step.

Shame on Mendenhall.

Is he not smart enough to realize the opportunity he has with the Steelers?

Last week, Tomlin hinted Mendenhall was ready to get more touches. In the loss Sept. 20 at Chicago, Mendenhall had turned a bad flat pass into a 13-yard gain, then ran for 39 yards to set up a touchdown. Those were his two best plays as a pro. They also made you and probably Tomlin think for the first time that maybe the kid has a chance to be pretty good after all.

Then Mendenhall gets benched?


Part of Mendenhall's problem is he doesn't have a veteran running back to guide him, to show him how to prepare and practice, to teach him what it means to be a pro. Starting back Willie Parker had Jerome Bettis, one of the great leaders in Steelers history. Lucky Willie. But Parker, though a great runner at times in his career, isn't much of a leader. Carey Davis was the closest thing to one among the Steelers' running backs, but he was cut this summer when Tomlin decided to go with rookie Frank Summers. Many veterans on the team will tell you that was a mistake, and their argument picked up steam Sunday when Summers was put on the inactive list.

Still, Mendenhall has to find a way to figure it all out. It's nice to think he will learn from this harsh lesson from Tomlin and start taking his well-paid job more seriously. "You always want your coach to feel good about you and have confidence in you," he said. We'll see this week how much Mendenhall wants that. We'll see what he does on the practice field and in the meeting room. We'll know if he has earned Tomlin's trust again Sunday night when the 1-2 Steelers play the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field in as close to a must-win game in early October that a team can have.

The Steelers desperately need Mendenhall to be successful. There's a good chance Parker will leave as a free agent after the season. If Mendenhall can't justify that No. 1 pick -- not to mention his five-year, $12.55 million contract -- the team will be in a real dilemma.

At least the Steelers have better options than Sweed.

Getty Images

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 18: Limas Sweed #14 of the Pittsburgh Steelers can't make the catch on a deep pass against the Baltimore Ravens during the AFC Championship game on January 18, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Even before Sunday, rookie Mike Wallace had surpassed Sweed as the No. 3 receiver. Then, Wallace, who looks like a steal as a third-round draft choice, caught everything thrown his way against the Bengals -- seven receptions for 102 yards -- and Sweed dropped the 34-yard touchdown pass that would have given the Steelers a 20-9 lead in the third quarter.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger couldn't have put that ball in a more perfect spot.

Hey, at least Sweed didn't stay down this time and fake an injury the way he did after dropping a touchdown pass in the AFC championship game in January, costing the Steelers an important timeout.

Tomlin should be thankful for small miracles, right?

Not surprisingly, Sweed didn't get back in the game Sunday. Now, I'm wondering if he'll ever get back on the field for the Steelers, barring injuries.

Veteran Shaun McDonald, who was inactive against the Bengals, would be a better choice than Sweed as the No. 4 man against the Chargers. At least he will catch the ball. Tomlin can't count on Sweed to do that. Roethlisberger can't count on him, even though he rushed to him on the sideline after the drop to console him. "To be a professional, you've got to be able to put things behind you," Big Ben said. "I told him I'll come back to him when the time comes. I'm going to have confidence that he's going to make the play the next time he has the chance."

Pardon me for not believing that.

Really, how can anyone have faith in Sweed?

What's most troubling is that Sweed doesn't seem to have a clue that his job could be in jeopardy.
"It happened. I hit the ground and the ball bounced out," he said of his latest drop.

That's pretty lame.

Sweed's game is lame.

There really is no reason to think Sweed will do his part to save the '08 draft class.

The Steelers already have cut linebacker Bruce Davis, their No 3 choice in that draft. That leaves Mendenhall, Sweed, offensive tackle Tony Hills (can't get off the inactive list on Sundays), quarterback Dennis Dixon (the No. 3 man) and safety Ryan Mundy (a backup) from the '08 class.

Go ahead, keep telling yourself it takes three, four, maybe even five years to fairly evaluate any group.

Say it enough times and you might believe it.

Or not.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on September 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Penguins' Fleury still learning, improving

Tuesday, September 29, 2009
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has won seven of his nine career playoff series.

With limbs that seem to stretch in ways they shouldn't and a personality that bubbles, Marc-Andre Fleury might conjure a couple of characters.

Gumby or Goofy. Take your pick.

As with public perception in a lot of cases, though, those are fairly superficial -- if understandable -- descriptions of the Penguins goaltender.

Dig deeper, and a seriously talented athlete emerges, someone who is learning to stay centered and has surpassed the limitations some ascribed to him.

Like the way Fleury blew up the concept that he was not good enough to backstop a team to a Stanley Cup title.

His last-second lunge to his right to stop a potential tying goal by Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the final in June instantly became part of NHL lore and ensured that Fleury's name and those of his teammates will be etched on the trophy by the time the Penguins raise their championship banner Friday before their season opener against the New York Rangers.

"I've watched it a couple times," Fleury said of that save. "That's pretty cool for my career, but it's just another save. I'm just happy that he didn't score on that one.

"I think I've heard people say I proved them wrong a little bit. I'm proud of that. But I don't pay that much attention to what's been said. I'm going to try my best."

So far, that includes a 40-win season, in 2006-07, and wins in seven of his nine career playoff series. He could add to his resume by playing for Canada in the 2010 Olympics.

It seems that Fleury, the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft, has been around a long time, but he is just 24 and still learning -- about rebound control and puck handling, but mostly about things the outside world doesn't see.

That includes a new aspect of his daily regimen: stretching.

The butterfly style goaltender with quick feet might make one save look simple, and on the next he might seem to defy the constraints of human anatomy.

"He's so flexible," said Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche, who played 18 seasons in the NHL. "I'd never get up if I played like him. One game and I'd be out."

Fleury, though, does not consider himself overly limber.

"My legs just go that way," he said. "My hip flexors are not very flexible. My quads are not so flexible. I just try to stop the puck. I don't really think about how far I stretch."

Like pretty much all athletes, Fleury has been instructed to do stretching exercises regularly since he was a tyke. Only after he missed 13 games the first half of last season because of a torn groin muscle did he really begin to listen.

He hasn't made a big deal of it; he just watches what his teammates do before games and practices and emulates them.

"I would go on the ice and stretch a little, warm up, but now I have to warm up in the gym," Fleury said. "Maybe it's a new style for me."

General manager Ray Shero couldn't believe his bendable goaltender got by so many years without taking stretching seriously.

"That surprises me because he's like Gumby," Shero said.

The Penguins' Mike Kadar, like all team strength and conditioning coaches, preaches stretching. He has a theory how the wiry, 6-foot-2, 180-pound goaltender got away with being a slacker in that area so long.

"Most of the goalies that I've seen are fairly limber and Gumby-like," Kadar said. "I think with 'Flower' the athleticism overrides the flexibility aspect. He's flexible, but he could be a little more flexible -- but he's just so athletic. He's extremely strong and explosive."

Strong could also describe Fleury's improving mental game, even if he is always smiling and bopping around off the ice.

With a hodgepodge lineup in front of him, Fleury hasn't put up great numbers this preseason -- 0-3 with a 4.15 goals-against average and an .845 save percentage in four appearances. That won't sit well with him, which is why his teammates expect him to have the fires burning once the season starts.

"I think that's key in a goaltender, that competitive nature, and he has it," defenseman Mark Eaton said.

Fleury has had to learn to balance that nature with quickly letting go of the frustration of giving up a goal.

"He doesn't like to get scored on, whether it's a game or practice," team captain Sidney Crosby said emphatically.

"They really [tick] me off," Fleury said. "They make me swear. That's the worst feeling for me, especially if it's a really bad one.

"I remember before, having the goals in my head. The guys are coming down [on the next rush] and you're still thinking about that.

"Now, I get mad for a little bit. I think about it for a little bit, go for a skate, take a drink of water. I watch it on the Jumbotron to see what happened. Then when the puck drops, I try to forget about it."

That kind of thinking might be counter to the one-dimensional impression fans have of Fleury based on what they see in his interviews.

"I think a lot of people when you look at Marc-Andre off the ice, the way his demeanor is, he's happy-go-lucky," Shero, who is in his fourth season, said. "But he gets on the ice, man, does he want to win, and he competes hard and he comes with that athleticism.

"Every year I've been here, he's taken a step. I think that's part of his journey. He's such a young goaltender. They say it takes defensemen awhile, but what about goaltenders? He's been our go-to guy and carried the load."

Shelly Anderson can be reached at or 412-263-1721.

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

Monday, September 28, 2009

Steelers' season feels like dejà vu

Monday, September 28, 2009

CINCINNATI — Will this be 2006 all over again? Will history repeat itself for the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers?

The Steelers don't normally blow 11-point leads in the fourth quarter.

They never lose to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium — at least they didn't until this year.

You know the Bengals. They wear big, red noses and dress up in clown suits whenever the Steelers visit.

That is, until Cincinnati's stunning, 23-20 comeback win against the Steelers on Sunday — when up was down, right was wrong and the Bengals finally turned the tables on their AFC North rivals.

Clutch fourth-quarter comebacks are usually reserved for the Steelers, not the Bengals.

Cincinnati ended an eight-game home losing streak against the Steelers along with a five-game overall losing streak to the Steelers going back to Sept. 24, 2006 — three years and three days to the date.

"Is that right? Now, we have to start over," defensive end Aaron Smith said.

There's something about the Steelers playing in the month of September the season after winning the Super Bowl that's worth noting.

Just as they were in 2006, the Steelers are 1-2.

If it happens once, it's a coincidence. If it happens twice, that usually signals a trend.

"Correlation? Nah. That's two different years,'' Smith said. "The fact is, we had plenty of chances to put this game way and didn't do it. This was a division game; it had nothing to do with anything else."

Added cornerback Ike Taylor: "I don't remember that far back. I don't even care right now. It's 2009."

Uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns and squandered scoring opportunities against Cincinnati leave the Steelers in third place in the division behind first-place Baltimore and the Bengals.

"The Super Bowl champions (being) 1-2 is not how we envisioned our season starting out," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We left a lot of plays on the field. If we score touchdowns in the first half, that's not even a ballgame. That's 24-0 or 24-3 (instead of 13-3).''

In the third quarter, crossed signals between quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Santonio Holmes resulted in Johnathan Joseph's 30-yard interception return for a touchdown that cut the Steelers' lead to 13-9.

"It was a miscommunication," Roethlisberger said. "We won't point fingers or put blame on anything.

"It's adversity that we have to face, but we've faced similar situations before."

Defensively, inside linebacker James Farrior blamed himself for Cincinnati's winning touchdown. Two plays before Carson Palmer's 4-yard scoring toss to Andre Caldwell, Farrior said he didn't stop Brian Leonard's 11-yard reception on fourth-and-10.

The last time the Steelers opened 1-2 the year after winning the Super Bowl, they missed the playoffs.

Ironically, the Steelers faced San Diego in their fourth game in 2006 — the same opponent they'll play host to next week at Heinz Field. The Steelers lost to the Chargers three years ago and fell into a 1-3 hole they couldn't climb out of.

"It's a matter of making plays and not making plays," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "If we don't start making them, it's going to be a long year."

Steelers lose battle of bunglers

Monday, September 28, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CINCINNATI -- This should have been the introduction to a common football tale, a simple story of three base elements:

Emergence -- the blossoming of Steelers receiver Mike Wallace into a viable weapon.
Re-emergence -- the spectacle of Willie Parker taking his rightful place at the core of the Steelers' offense.

And finally ...

Submergence -- the retreat to the backwaters of the depth chart by Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed, or draft choices Nos. 1 and 2 from 2008.

Sweed dropped a touchdown pass yesterday, which just happened to stand up as the arithmetic difference between victory and defeat, and Mendenhall helped run out the clock on the Steelers with a direction-less kickoff return in the game's final seconds, but the Steelers probably didn't need either of those youngsters to lose to the Cincinnati Bengals.

There were plenty of decorated veterans working hard at it for most of the second half and all of the fourth quarter. In a game when the Bengals nearly were booed off the field for repeated bursts of gross incompetence, Mike Tomlin's team stopped what it was doing with a 13-point lead and decided to see if it could out-pratfall one of the league's great slapstick acts.

Mission accomplished.

"We've got to make critical plays at critical moments," Tomlin said 10 minutes after the Steelers' first loss in the AFC North Division since 2007. "We have people whose resumes are filled with those type of plays. We just have to get it out of them."

Losses have been remarkably few in the burgeoning Tomlin era, but this was easily the worst. It wasn't the thorough whipping endured a year ago at Tennessee or at New England the year before, and it had none of the import of a home playoff loss to Jacksonville, but for raw goal-line to goal-line ineptitude, it was the topper.

Or bottomer.

"All losses are the worst, whether they're 35-0 or 16-15," said defensive back Deshea Townsend, as tenured a Steelers player as you could find yesterday in the locker room. "A lot of things went wrong out there, but we still were winning. We made a lot of mistakes but we had the opportunities to overcome them. You have to overcome those things, and we came up short."

Mistake 1 came from the coaching staff, which considered several options for fourth-and-4 at the Cincinnati 35 with the Steelers leading, 13-0. Too distant for a field-goal try, to near for a punt, the pass play called took just long enough for Ben Roethlisberger to get pressured into a desperate, harmless throw. Operating out of the shotgun, Roethlisberger easily could have dropped a pooch punt inside the Bengals' 15 or better. He has executed that very play previously. That would have pinned Carson Palmer's bumbling offense down until the second half, when the Steelers were going to receive the kickoff, but instead the Bengals took over at the 35 and, just as Chad Ochocinco probably had begun to consider tweeting "Palmer stinks," the quarterback moved the Bengals 49 yards in 66 seconds to a field goal.

From that point, the Bengals outscored the Steelers, 20-7.

Tomlin surely thought there was no point in pinning the Bengals back there, since it looked as though Palmer could be set up at the Steelers' 1 and not threaten anyone. He had four passes batted down, misdirected about 14 others, and even a winning touchdown pass capping a 71-yard drive with 14 seconds left could lift his passer rating only to a lukewarm 76.7.

Bengals mistakes extended not only to the defense, but to their special teams, where center Brad St. Louis' snap for an extra point sailed halfway to the other St. Louis. I guess they don't call him the long snapper for nothing.

But for all of this, there was simply no amount of Cincinnati incompetence the Steelers couldn't overcome.

Or undercome.

On their first possession after intermission, Roethlisberger threw with perfect imperfection to Cincinnati corner Johnathan Joseph, who returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. Clearly a miscommunication, because otherwise you would have thought Roethlisberger was channeling his inner Neil O'Donnell.

"We won't point fingers," Roethlisberger said.

Translation: "Wasn't me."

Santonio Holmes was headed upfield in that general area, not to point fingers, but Holmes had a second consecutive miserable game, catching only one of five balls thrown to him.

Along with his historic 10,000th receiving yard, Hines Ward collected twin interference penalties to help keep the offense, as Tomlin might say, mistake capable.

Finally, for a second consecutive week, the revered Steelers defense allowed a fourth-quarter scoring drive, not to mention 139 yards of Bengals offense in that final 15 minutes.

"We have to learn to finish, man," said cornerback Ike Taylor, who nearly won the game himself with three spectacular pass breakups on the Bengals' final drive, one against Ochocinco in the end zone. "At the end of halves, at the end of games, we've got to get off the field."

You knew the Bengals eventually would win one of these affairs, but you would never have guessed it would be by getting outbungled.

Gene Collier can be reached More articles by this author

Gene Collier's "Two-Minute Warning" videos 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 September 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Defense careens after another blow

Monday, September 28, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CINCINNATI -- It seemed impossible for any defense to play worse than the Pitt defense did Saturday in a loss at North Carolina State when it gave up 38 points and 530 yards. But the Steelers' defense might have been worse yesterday. For the second week in a row and the third game in the past four going back to Super Bowl XLIII, it collapsed in the fourth quarter. Only one word describes its late play: Terrible.

I mean, really, put the blame for the 23-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals exactly where it belongs.

Sure, it's easy to finger quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the third quarter, and wide receiver Limas Sweed, who dropped a touchdown pass a few plays later, just as it was easy to blame Jeff Reed a week ago for missing two field goals in a 17-14 loss to the Chicago Bears. It's especially easy to finger Sweed. He looks like a bust as a No. 2 draft pick in 2008. Too bad coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians didn't "forget" about him yesterday the way they did in the opening-game win against the Tennessee Titans.

But the Steelers still led, 20-9, in the fourth quarter. That should have been plenty for its defense, which was the best in the NFL last season ...

Doesn't last season seem like a lifetime ago about now?

The Bengals put together two long touchdown drives to win, just as the Bears had two long scoring drives to win that game and just as the Arizona Cardinals had two touchdown drives to take a late lead in the Super Bowl only to be trumped by a wondrous winning drive led by Roethlisberger.

Once is a bad day at the office. That's what the dependable Reed had in Chicago. But two in a row and three in four games? That's a rotten trend.

"Walking off the field today, I couldn't believe it," defensive end Brett Keisel said.

Who could?

Who could have predicted the Steelers' defense would melt down again?

"It's surprising because we're so used to someone -- anyone -- making a play for us," defensive back Deshea Townsend said.

A better question:

Why is this happening?

"It's usually a myriad of reasons, quite frankly," Tomlin said. "Tighter coverage, better pressure -- they go hand-in-hand. The bottom line is that we need significant players -- and we have quite a few of those -- to make significant plays in significant moments."

All of it is enough to make you at least wonder if the defense has aged before our very eyes. You know, gone from a veteran, experienced defense to an old defense.

Townsend, 34, was late on a few coverages. Defensive end Aaron Smith, 33, had his hand -- two hands, actually -- on Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer when he completed an 11-yard pass to running back Brian Leonard on a fourth-and-10 play on the winning drive. "I wish I would have had one more step on him," Smith said. Linebacker James Farrior, 34, couldn't quite keep up with Leonard on that play or tackle him short of the first down.

Safety Tyrone Carter is 33, nose tackle Casey Hampton 32, Keisel 31 ...

"No, I don't think we're too old," Townsend said. "We're just not finishing games right now."
"I don't believe that has anything to do with it," Smith added. "There were plays five or six years ago when I wished I had one more step."


You expected the fellas to say they should be put out to pasture?

The Steelers also didn't want to play the Troy Polamalu card as an excuse even though the All-Pro safety missed his second consecutive game with a knee injury.

"If we can stop a team for 3 1/2 quarters, we can stop them for four," safety Ryan Clark said. "I think Troy is our best player and our most talented player. We all miss him. But the guys we have out there should be able to make the plays."

So if it's not age and not the Polamalu factor, then what it is?

"It's about executing in situational football," Farrior said. "We're not doing that right now. I'm not doing that.

"I feel like I cost us this game. That dude [Leonard] was my man. He just beat me. If I tackle him, we win the game."

Farrior hardly was the lone villain. When the defense gives up a 6-play, 85-yard touchdown drive and a 16-play, 71-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, there's plenty of blame to go around. Twice on the winning drive, the Bengals converted fourth-down plays.

"Point blank, put it on us -- on the secondary," Clark said. "You don't have to write about anything else. Just talk about us -- the defensive backs. Something's got to be fixed. Carson Palmer is a great quarterback and he has a lot of weapons. We've got to get closer to those guys ...

"[Cornerback] Ike [Taylor] made all the plays he can make. I think he had three or four [passes broken up]. But the rest of us have got to help him out. He can't do it by himself."

It's admirable that the Steelers' defensive players line up to take blame. But it would be even more admirable if they got things "fixed" -- to use Clark's word -- and started making the plays to close out games.

"We've just got to go to the lab and work on some things," Townsend said. "Don't press and stick together. The plays are going to come."

Or as Keisel put it, "We've got to take the punches and move on."
What an interesting choice of words.

The Steelers' defense took two huge blows on the past two Sundays.
As a result, the champion is staggering.

Many more days like this and the champion will be knocked out.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on September 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Are the Penguins up for a repeat run?

Sunday, September 27, 2009
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Wasn't it just yesterday that the Penguins raised Lord Stanley's Cup? It wasn't, but it seems like it.

It begins again. A mere 112 days after the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup in Detroit, they must -- ready or not -- start the grueling journey all over come Friday night. History and the New York Rangers will provide the opposition.

Gee, and it all seemed so impressive at the time.

Looked like quite an accomplishment when the Penguins went from tenth place in East with eight weeks left in the regular season to grab the No. 4 seed for the conference playoffs.

When Dan Bylsma, with two-thirds of a season of head-coaching experience at any level, took over the team with 25 games remaining and radically altered not only its style of play, but its results. And did it almost instantly, helping a team that started the season 27-25-5 to finish it with a 18-3-4 surge.

When the Penguins clinched four consecutive playoff series on the road, twice doing it in elimination games.

Turns out, that was the easy part.

Surviving the two-month marathon that is the Stanley Cup playoffs is one of the most daunting challenges in pro sports; doing it in consecutive seasons has become a once-in-a-decade feat.

The Penguins will be trying to be the first club to manage that since Detroit in 1997 and 1998; before the Red Wings, there hadn't been a repeat champion since the Penguins of 1991 and 1992.

In order to do that, the Penguins will have to pull off something even more rare: Become the first team to reach a Cup final in three consecutive years since Edmonton in 1983-85. Detroit, which has split the past two finals with the Penguins, has a chance to do the same.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the Penguins are the first team since the 1984 Oilers to win a championship after losing in the final the previous season.

"Who would have thought two teams would be playing [in the Cup final] in back-to-back years, so we've kind of beaten the odds once," center Sidney Crosby said. "Hopefully, we can do it again."

Precedent isn't on their side. While evidence of the time when single teams could dominate the NHL for years still can be found, the eras of dynasties like the New York Islanders (the early 1980s) or Montreal (the late 1970s) are as much a part of ancient history as the Ming or Han dynasties in China.

It's a different game now, governed by dramatically different regulations. Think Bill Torrey, architect of those great Islanders teams, would have been able to hold onto Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Clark Gilles, John Tonelli, Billy Smith, et al. if there'd been liberal free agency and a salary cap?

"Back then, you kept your players," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "It wasn't a situation where players were coming and leaving. You pretty much had your team together."

The 2009-10 Penguins, however, suffered less significant roster turnover than most champions. Aside from their shutdown defense pairing of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, most of the players who departed during the offseason filled, at most, complementary roles.

One who might have been missed -- right winger Petr Sykora, who had developed a good chemistry with center Evgeni Malkin during the past two seasons -- lost his scoring touch and his place in the lineup during the stretch drive and playoffs, and thus was out of management's plans even before the season ended.

"Not taking anything away from the guys we lost, but especially for a team that won it or goes to the final, I'd say we probably lost very little, compared to most teams that win it and try to keep the team together," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

Having the group that won the Cup remain largely intact obviously is a plus for the Penguins; what might not be readily apparent was that simply winning the Cup could work in their favor, too.

While they played one more game in the final than they did in 2008, many of the Penguins insist they feel more invigorated than they did a year ago. Hoisting that 35-pound trophy doesn't take much out of a guy, after all.

"They are more excited about this camp than [the 2008] camp," Shero said. "To go all that way and lose in the final, it's tough.

"If you win, you feel great about yourself. Great about your teammates and what you accomplished. Guys are excited to be here. Short summer or not, they're ready to go."

That excitement will fade eventually, and then it will become apparent whether fatigue born of consecutive trips to the Cup final will influence the Penguins' prospects for making a third.

They have a pretty close locker room that doesn't disagree on much, but whether the cumulative effects of the past couple of years will have an impact on how this season plays out is one of those issues.

"Mentally and physically, it's a grind," Crosby said. "You go that deep into the playoffs, your summer is shorter and you become more of a target, as far as your team is concerned.

"Teams are that much more motivated to beat you every night. You're not going to see too many teams' off-nights. They're usually pretty prepared when they play you.

"The physical part, it just wears you down. You have to find a way to stay energized and keep that motivation."

Orpik, however, see it differently, and is pretty blunt about it.

"Some people make a big deal out of fatigue," he said. "I think that's maybe the most overrated of the reasons [champions don't repeat]. I think maybe that has a little bit to do with it.

"Everyone is in such good shape. Three months is a long time to have off. If you can't recover in three months, I don't know if you should play in this league."

Credible arguments, both. Which is more accurate might not be known for a while.

"We had a short summer last year, too," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "I guess we'll see. It's tough to say what I'll feel like in December, but right now, I feel good."

Even without a lengthy playoff run, the NHL season is grueling. There are 82 regular-season games, and precious few -- if any -- that can be penciled in for two guaranteed points.

"That's one of the reasons it's extremely hard [to sustain success] -- the competition is pretty darned good," Bylsma said. "There are teams in our league that have really good players, but don't make the playoffs.

"It's tough to get wins, and that means it's tough to make the playoffs. That's why it's challenging to duplicate success, over and over and over again.

"We all view success as getting to the final and winning the Stanley Cup, but you could have a very good year and go into a playoff series and you could lose in Round 1 and everyone would think you didn't have a very good year."

And, in the case of the Penguins, those people would be correct. Win a Cup, and getting bumped from the playoffs early the next spring is pretty hard to accept.

It certainly isn't what the Penguins are expecting, even though they recognize and respect the threats posed by Eastern rivals such Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, among others.

"Especially our conference, it seems like every single team got better this summer," Orpik said.

It's possible that the Penguins did, too. Not necessarily because they added veterans like Jay McKee and Mike Rupp, but because so many key young players like Crosby, Fleury, Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, among others, probably won't reach their real potential anytime soon.

"We have a team that's still fairly young and can grow together," Fleury said. "We've had some tough times -- last year, we had a tough stretch -- but we were able to get out of it and win the Cup. That was good for us."

Whether playing until June for two years in a row could work in their favor is hard to say, but there was more to that than simply the physical and mental tolls taken on the players.

"We're not the most experienced team," Crosby said. "But we're coming off two pretty long [playoff runs] where we hopefully learned a lot."

One thing they'll discover soon, if they haven't already, is how tough it is to produce a championship sequel. Winning a Cup takes talent and commitment and luck and quality coaching; the Penguins had all of that a few months ago, and will get rings in a couple of days to prove it.

Soon enough, it will be evident whether getting that championship satisifed their desire to win, or stoked it.

"I'll always be happy that we won that one, but at the same time, we can't be complacent," Fleury said. "It's a new season."

Dave Molinari can be reached at

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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Therrien nurtured Penguins into contender

Friday, September 25, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Michel Therrien watched just about every minute of every Penguins playoff game last spring -- all but the third period of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final against the Detroit Red Wings.

"I didn't have to watch that because I knew we were going to win," he said this week.

I'm thinking there was a little more to it than that. I'm thinking that Therrien couldn't bring himself to watch Sidney Crosby hoist the Cup even though he adores Crosby. I'm also thinking that's why he made sure he and his two kids were on a plane the next morning for a vacation in the Dominican Republic "so we wouldn't be around for all that stuff."

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

The Penguins fired former head coach Michel Therrien in February.

The coronation of the NHL's new kings. The victory parade that clogged Downtown streets. The love fest with a hockey club that lasted all summer.

Seems kind of ironic, doesn't it?

Therrien, who was fired as Penguins coach in February, wasn't a part of any of it, yet none of it would have happened without him.

Team owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux contacted Therrien after the Detroit series to tell him as much. So did several players. Max Talbot, the hero of Game 7 with two goals, called to thank him for what he meant to his career. Rob Scuderi did the same after he signed a four-year, $13.6 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings. Crosby sent frequent text messages, one just this week.

"I am so proud of those guys," Therrien said.

It's easy to forget now, after the joy of a Cup season, that Crosby and the Penguins weren't much of a team when Therrien took over from Eddie Olczyk in December 2005. "We had to change the culture, change the structure," Therrien said. He was the perfect man for the job. He demanded accountability even if it made him unpopular at times in the locker room. Certainly, the boys weren't thrilled that first season when he publicly called out their defensemen, accusing them of trying to be the worst in the league and saying they were "soft."

"I was not there to be a popular guy," Therrien said. "I was there to bring guys along and make them better players. You don't become champions with no structure, no commitment and no discipline."

Therrien's way worked. The Penguins improved by 47 points in his first full season and made the playoffs for the first time in six years. The next season, they went to the Stanley Cup final, losing in six games to the Red Wings.

Then, almost just like that, Therrien was fired.

That's the way it works in the NHL, a league that has little regard for its coaches. It didn't matter that the Penguins had to play much of the season without their two top offensive defensemen -- Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney -- because of injuries or that Ruslan Fedotenko, Tyler Kennedy and Marc-Andre Fleury also missed significant time. It didn't matter that Miroslav Satan failed as a winger on Crosby's line early in the season after the team was stung by Marian Hossa's unexpected defection to the Red Wings. Therrien took the fall.

I can't get past Gonchar's shoulder injury. He didn't play until Feb. 14, the day before Therrien was fired. I'm convinced Therrien still would be the Penguins' coach if he had the man he called "the quarterback of our power play."

"I don't know much about football, but I don't think the Steelers could replace Ben [Roethlisberger] if he was out for a long period of time," Therrien said. "I think they would be in trouble. It catches up to you after a while."

The Penguins were in 10th place, five points out of a playoff spot, when Therrien was fired and replaced by Dan Bylsma. At the time, Therrien predicted the team still would compete for the Cup. He became even more convinced soon after when general manager Ray Shero traded for Chris Kunitz to play on Crosby's line and added veterans Bill Guerin and Craig Adams.

"I think there were nine different players on the team that won the Cup from the team that started the season. That's half a team," Therrien said. "Everything came together for them."

What about Bylsma, who led the Penguins on an 18-3-4 surge to finish the regular season and then guided them expertly through the playoffs?

"Honestly? He did a great job. He and the staff," Therrien said.

Therrien worked the first and third rounds of the playoffs as a between-periods analyst for RDS, a French-speaking Canadian television network. Once the Penguins were matched against the Red Wings in the Cup final, he said he knew that they would win. "After losing the year before? And with the Hossa thing? They had fire in their eyes. You didn't have to make any big speeches before those games."

As happy as Therrien was for his former players, it still hurt him to see them be so successful without him. "It is hard, I'm not going to lie. That's probably the hardest thing that can happen to you in this game. But things happen for a reason. Sometimes, we don't know what that reason is, but I'm convinced there will be another challenge for me."

Therrien still lives in Nevillewood. One reason is he loves Pittsburgh. "The people here have been so great to me, so respectful, so gracious." A bigger reason is he is a single dad and his kids are settled here. Elizabeth, 17, is a junior at Chartiers Valley High School, Charles, 15, a sophomore. "They don't want to move again right now," he said.

Still, Therrien, 45, will coach again. He interviewed with one NHL club this summer -- he wouldn't say which one -- but can afford to be patient because the Penguins will be paying him this season and next, thanks to the contract extension they gave him after the team went to the Cup final in 2008.

"The money is nice, but I want to work," Therrien said.

Not in television.

Not in player development.

Not as an assistant general manager.

As a coach.

"I'm more motivated than ever," Therrien said. "I'm more convinced than ever that my recipe is good. I know I will coach again. I know I will win a Cup."

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on September 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Friday, September 25, 2009

Steelers-Bengals chatter is believable

Thursday, September 24, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 6-0 all-time in Cincinnati.

We've all gotten pretty good at this particular autumn protocol, this understated semiannual ceremony that traces its roots to the Nixon administration, in which the Steelers devote part of a workday to a public explanation of the many ostensibly worthy qualities of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Whom they've now beaten in 15 of the past 19 meetings. Who have played one playoff game in the past 19 years.

So three days before the Steelers are to leave again for extreme southwestern Ohio, where they've won in eight consecutive autumns, most recently by the largest margin of victory in the 39-year history of this rivalry, they were at it again yesterday.

But this time it was different.

This time, the Steelers did not merely intone the common compliments.

This time, I think they believed them.

"Well, last year against [Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer], we did a good job -- no touchdowns, no completions!" chuckled safety Ryan Clark, purposely failing to mention that Palmer didn't play in either Steelers-Bengals game in 2008. "Hey, he's only one person. He can't win the game by himself. He can't cover Hines Ward. Can't cover Santonio [Holmes]. But we know he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league and that's why this is a new Bengals team.

He's a new surgically repaired man.

"Now that [Chad] Ochocinco has Carson Palmer to get the ball to him, you can expect to see big things from him, too."

It's true Palmer is back from an unhealthy season, and Ochocinco has returned from an unproductive one partially as a result, but there is so much additional crackle to the new Bengals and so much potential stagnation here 300 miles upriver that I'd almost be tempted to tell you that these are two teams headed in opposite directions.

I'm not doing that because teams headed in opposite directions are the very definition of the game. One team's going toward one goal line and the other toward the other, which is, quite evidently, in the opposite direction.

But the Bengals are humming offensively behind an accomplished running back, Cedric Benson, who has three 100-yard-plus performances in his past four games dating to last year, or one more than the Steelers have in their past 12.

The Bengals are destroying people's best laid plans on defense behind Antwan Odom, whose seven sacks from the right end spot are 31/2 times the Steelers' total (and the most in any season's first two weeks since the NFL starting counting sacks in 1982).

"The defense shut down Denver in the first game until that crazy [game-winning] play at the end, and they pretty much did the same thing in the second game," said an admiring Palmer via conference call yesterday. "It was my two turnovers that made it difficult."

Palmer threw two picks Sunday at Green Bay, but the Bengals still overturned twin seven-point deficits to win for the first time at Lambeau Field.

"I think we showed what kind of character we have," Palmer said. "We were coming off a heartbreaking loss. The offense still needs to improve, but there's a little extra incentive this week because the Steelers are supposed to be the best."

Yeah, I keep hearing that.

But after two games, the Steelers have two sacks, two takeaways and three touchdowns. After two weeks last year, they had seven, five and six.

If Ben Roethlisberger weren't 6-0 in Cincinnati and 11-0 in Ohio adding the Browns factor, you could almost identify the aroma of a 1-2 start for the Super Bowl champions. If you don't want to smell that, you should probably ignore the fact that the Bengals went 9 for 14 on third downs at Green Bay, that they scored touchdowns all four times inside the red zone, and that they've possessed the ball for nearly 34 minutes on each of the past two Sundays.

"That's the big difference," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis via squawkerphone. "Even though we've given up the ball on offense, we've been able to move the ball up and down the field."

The bigger difference might well be emotional for these Bengals. Palmer's quietly reached the point in his career where as much of it is behind him as ahead, and his one playoff appearance ended within minutes via the disastrous hit by former Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. Getting back to the playoffs, and getting deep into them, is a powerful incentive.

"It's extremely important to me because I've been in the league seven years and played for six and haven't had a good run in the playoffs, something I want very badly," Palmer said. "Of all the groups that I've been with since I've been here this is the one that has the best chance to do that."

Should they beat the Steelers Sunday, that notion will have life. Somehow it doesn't seem so routinely impossible.

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. An introduction to PG+ is available.

First published on September 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Steelers' defense deserves bulk of blame for loss to Bears

Tuesday, September 22, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They lined up to take blame after the Steelers' 17-14 loss to the Chicago Bears Sunday. Jeff Reed, obviously. Hines Ward, who said the offense left too many plays on Soldier Field. Brett Keisel, who said the defense had no business blowing a fourth-quarter lead.

All were right, of course.

None more than Keisel, though.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox makes a touchdown catch past Steelers safety Tyrone Carter in Sunday's game at Soldiers Field in Chicago.

Maybe that's because so many of us hold the Steelers' defense to a higher standard than the offense and special teams. The defense is largely the same as last season when it was the NFL's best. There's also no ambiguity when that bunch is involved. With the offense, we're left to wonder the true meaning of Steelers football these days: Is it run first or pass first? But with the defense, it's clear: Steelers football is stopping the run, not giving up big plays, getting off the field after third down, sacking the quarterback and forcing turnovers.

Hey, at least they stopped the run Sunday.

Clearly, that wasn't enough.

The defense's performance, unfortunately, brought back bad memories from Super Bowl XLIII. That night, the Arizona Cardinals scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to wipe out the Steelers' 20-7 lead. If not for that miracle 78-yard drive led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and that fabulous touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes at the end, the defense would have been remembered for the greatest collapse in Super Bowl history.

At least the great Kurt Warner and the incomparable Larry Fitzgerald were the ones playing pitch-and-catch in that game.

Sunday, the Steelers were beaten by quarterback Jay Cutler throwing to receivers named Johnny Knox and Kellen Davis. Cutler hung up a 104.7 passer rating on 'em, this after he was intercepted four times a week earlier in a loss to the Green Bay Packers. The Steelers didn't get one pick, didn't force any turnovers, actually. They also had just one sack officially -- by defensive end Aaron Smith -- although safety Tyrone Carter should have been credited with another when he tackled Cutler for a 1-yard loss after a scramble.

It's no wonder the defense couldn't hold a 14-7 fourth-quarter lead.

Not having Troy Polamalu was a big part of it. Absolutely, that was huge. It's hard for anyone to replace him, as Carter found out, especially after his left thigh was badly bruised in the second quarter. He shouldn't have been on the field when Knox beat him with an inside move for a 7-yard touchdown catch that tied the score, 14-14. "In hindsight, I hurt the team," he said. "I knew I couldn't cover him on that play."

Polamalu will be out for at least a few more weeks with his left knee sprain and Carter, who was limping badly at team headquarters yesterday, might miss the game at Cincinnati Sunday. Ryan Mundy would appear to be next in line at strong safety, which can't be a good thing because of his inexperience.

Still, the Steelers are going to have to show up at Paul Brown Stadium. As coach Mike Tomlin often says, the standards don't change because of injuries. Certainly, no one wants to hear excuses.

A better pass rush would help. The Steelers have just two sacks after the first two games, none by outside linebackers/sackmasters James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. At least Woodley got after Cutler a few times and hurried him into a couple of incompletions and an intentional-grounding penalty. Harrison, on the other hand, was most noticeable when he was penalized for a personal foul for hitting Cutler late and low on a first-down play at the Chicago 3, helping the Bears to dig out of a very deep hole.

"Teams aren't holding onto the ball as long," Woodley said yesterday. "They're throwing quick passes instead of going for big bombs."

Still ...

"We had opportunities to get sacks [Sunday]. We just didn't take him down," Woodley said, mentioning his chances and those of linebacker James Farrior. "It kind of felt like we beat ourselves a little bit."

More pressure on the quarterback and actually finishing the sacks occasionally will take a lot of pressure off the secondary on those third-down plays. The Bears converted 3 of 3 on their 13-play, 97-yard touchdown drive in the first half and 2 of 2 on their nine-play, 72-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Cutler also completed a 5-yard pass to wide receiver Devin Hester on third-and-4 on their winning field-goal drive at the end.

Keisel was right on for fingering the defense for this loss.

"We've got to have enough pride to keep a lead in the fourth quarter if we want to be the team we want to be," he said. "Losing a game like that is something we can't let happen."

Not in Cincinnati Sunday.

Not again, period.

Aired out

The Steelers' defense has given up an uncharacteristic amount of yards through the air in the past three games going back to Super Bowl XLIII:

Date Opponent PYd Avg. RYd Avg. Total

Feb. 1 vs. Arizona Cardinals 374 8.3 33 2.8 407

Sept. 10 vs. Tennessee Titans 321 6.8 86 1.6 357

Sept. 20 @ Chicago Bears 232 5.9 43 2.4 275

2008 AVERAGES 157 5.4 80 3.3 237

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on September 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

Monday, September 21, 2009

Run of offensive woes continues

Monday, September 21, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CHICAGO -- So even by the singular authority of those six Super Bowl championships, it appears as though the Steelers will not be running the table in 2009, but at least they won't be tabling the run.

Not completely.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dives for a first down in the fourth quarter against the Bears.

Yes that was Rashard Mendenhall, the much mistrusted, slicing through a hole cracked open by Chris Kemoeatu, rumbling 39 yards to set up a second-half touchdown yesterday 10 days after it appeared as though the Steelers couldn't run a hot dog stand. And that was Willie Parker, the recently reviled, slicing out 12-, 12-, and 13-yard chunks against a Bears defense working desperately in the face of significant casualties.

But for all that, you might have known this was an offense still not fully functional right from the moment that Santonio Holmes intercepted a pass intended for Heath Miller on the Steelers' first possession. Worse, that first series would be the Steelers' most efficient of the day.

Scoring exactly seven points on their final nine possessions, the Steelers lost quietly on the shores of Lake Michigan, where they've historically come to snooze. This was their 13th visit and their 12th loss, and it made for a thick week of analysis dead ahead.

"There's no question we left a lot of plays out there," said Hines Ward, who caught six of Ben Roethlisberger's 23 completions but accumulated only 57 yards. "We'll review it, study it, analyze it, and come back from it. When you play a 16-game season, you're going to have games like this, but the fact is, we didn't execute well enough. Regardless of what the stats show or the numbers show, we didn't get it done."

Relative to the numbers that matter, those being 13 points in overtime in the opener and 14 points against the Bears yesterday, you'll just have to tune in Sunday when the Steelers play at Cincinnati and attempt the unthinkable: 15 points.

"Cincinnati's playin' good ball," said Steelers tackle Willie Colon, enunciating a sentence rarely heard in the English language. "I think one upside for us is that we did get a little bit of a running game going, but we did a lot of little things wrong. They did a good job overloading to one side and it caused a lot of miscommunication. You've got to come off the ball clean out there and we weren't doing it all the time."

You'd never have suspected even the threat of offensive difficulties from yesterday's initial possession, even when Holmes swiped a pass headed for Miller, because he wound up taking it 24 yards for his longest gain of the day. Roethlisberger hit Miller on a slant for 15 yards to convert a third down, then hit Ward for 13 to convert another, and on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Ben rolled to his right and flipped a go-ahead touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth.

It was a 92-yard drive that took 13 plays and raked 8:03 off the first-quarter clock -- and it was apparently a bad omen. The Steelers' offense had not scored a first quarter touchdown in its past 10 games.

"They kind of got us on our heels at the start," said Bears middle linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, starting for Brian Urlacher.

"Things weren't working and we were tired. A lot of guys had their hands on their hips during that first drive. Today wasn't a dominating performance by our defense, it was a total team win."

Similarly, you can't make the first Steelers loss since Dec. 21 stick exclusively to the offense. Ty Carter, who was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week last time he got a start, will not be so selected today after getting beat for both Bears touchdowns, once by tight end Kellen Davis and then by rookie wideout Johnny Knox on a simple slant in the fourth quarter that tied the score, 14-14. Jeff Reed's two missed field-goal attempts in that period might be getting some attention today as well.

But for me this first Steelers loss of the new season will be frozen in the mind's eye by two images, the first of the running game's continuing futility on first down, where nine of 14 run calls yesterday fell in the range of plus 3 to minus-5 yards, and the second will be the football repeatedly squishing through the famous fingers of Holmes, whose three drops were lowlighted by the end result of a third-and-2 call from the Chicago 25 with 3:29 left in the game and the Steelers in grand position to win.

Holmes beat cornerback Charles Tillman to the left rear pylon as Roethlisberger threw on an exquisite arc that took it right over Tillman's hands and between Holmes' mitts.

Yeah, like in the Super Bowl.

But this one fell to earth, or certainly at least into a column-ending metaphor for Mike Tomlin's fellas.

Gene Collier can be reached a More articles by this author

Reed embarrassed by two field-goal misses

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, September 21, 2009

CHICAGO -- Heard something in the Steelers' locker room last night that I've never heard before.

A teammate defending Jeff Reed.

Talk about something that's usually so unnecessary.

"Jeff is a great kicker," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "He's going to win a lot of games for us. He has won a lot of games for us. But even the great ones miss once in awhile."

Or miss twice.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Jeff Reed reacts as he misses his second field goal of the game against the Bears.

What must Reed have been feeling as he dressed a few feet from Keisel and heard his every word?

Actually, I'll tell you exactly what he was feeling after the Steelers' 17-14 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

"I'm just embarrassed because these guys fought their tails off to win the game," Reed said. "It's a terrible feeling. If there's one player who can single-handedly lose the game, then I'll take credit for it today."

It wasn't so surprising that the Steelers were beaten, their first loss in a meaningful game since their meltdown in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans Dec. 21, four games and one Super Bowl ago.

What was shocking was the way they lost.

Reed -- maybe the most dependable player on the team -- had the worst game of his eight-year NFL career.

You expect him to miss field-goal attempts about as often as defensive end Aaron Smith gets blown off the ball or tight end Heath Miller drops a pass.
It just almost never happens.

"If I make either one of those kicks, we win," Reed said.

It's hard to argue with the man.

Yes, the Steelers' offense struggled to score points, in large part, because the run game again did nothing in the first half before picking it up a bit in the second, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception with the team driving early in the second quarter and star wide receiver Santonio Holmes seemed to drop as many passes as he caught. But it clearly would have scored enough if Reed hadn't hooked a 38-yard field-goal try early in the fourth quarter that would have nudged the Steelers' lead to 17-7 and probably deflated the Bears.

It's also true the Steelers' proud defense, which figures it should win any game when it has a fourth-quarter lead, gave up a tying nine-play, 72-yard touchdown drive, in large part, because it couldn't get off the field on third down and safety Tyrone Carter had a hard time filling in for All-Pro Troy Polamalu, especially after his left thigh was badly bruised late in the first half. But it clearly would have played well enough to win if Reed hadn't missed left again from 43 yards out with the score tied, 14-14, with 3:18 left.

"No excuses," Reed said. "I missed two kicks. I thought the first one was going to sneak in, but I didn't give the second one a chance."

To say those on the Steelers' sideline were stunned would be an understatement of the largest proportion.

"We aren't used to what happened with him today," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who often has said he doesn't watch Reed kick because he knows he's going to make every field-goal try.

"You are surprised when he misses," Smith added, "because he's almost automatic."

This was just the fourth time in Reed's career that he missed two kicks in a game. The most recent time it happened was Sept. 26, 2004, when the Steelers played the Miami Dolphins in Hurricane Jeanne, a brutal storm that rocked South Florida and forced the game to be delayed from afternoon to night.

You know how long ago that was?

It was Roethlisberger's first NFL start.

Dave Wannstedt was the Dolphins' coach.

That's a long time ago.

"Yeah, I am surprised [by the misses]," Reed said. "I strive for perfection. I don't think I kicked well at all today. My kickoffs were bad and I missed those two kicks."

Making things worse for Reed, he had to watch Bears kicker Robbie Gould -- a former Penn Stater -- drill the winner from 44 yards with 15 seconds left after the Steelers' defense gave up one final big third-down play.

"I've been in those shoes plenty of times, and I know how great he feels right now as opposed to how I feel," Reed said.

Then for emphasis ...

"It's embarrassing," he said again.

It should be pointed out that, after Reed missed from 44 and 45 yards on that miserable night in Miami, he came back to kick a 51-yarder for the clinching points that night in a 13-3 win.

The Steelers figure Reed will bounce back again Sunday when they play the Bengals in Cincinnati.

"We're not down on him one bit," Roethlisberger said. "We lost as a team, and we will move on."

Reed said it "means a lot" that Roethlisberger, Keisel and the others have his back.

That didn't make this game any easier for him, though.

This was a completely new feeling for him.

As he put it, "I definitely don't want to feel this way again."

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on September 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Penguins' Malkin not satisfied

Wednesday, September 16, 2009
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin on the Stanley Cup, "I have 10 fingers on my hands, and I want to win 10 times."

Evgeni Malkin wants more. A lot more.

The Penguins' prolific center thinks about piling up the trophies every time he looks at his hands. It has nothing to do with how soft those big paws are on shots or passes.

He just sees possibilities that make the team's successful Stanley Cup run last season one to grow on.

"That was last year," Malkin said this week as training camp got under way. "I want to win one more time, two, three more times. I have 10 fingers on my hands, and I want to win 10 times. Why not?

"I want to win a couple more trophies, a Hart Trophy. We have a good chance to win. Why not? We're young kids."

In helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, Malkin won the Art Ross Trophy as the regular-season scoring champion with 113 points and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after finishing third in the postseason with 36 points in 24 games. He finished second to Washington's Alex Ovechkin in voting for the Hart Trophy as regular-season MVP.

Malkin, 23, will have to wait -- likely until Friday, when the Penguins have an exhibition game at home against Toronto -- to make his preseason debut. He was not in the lineup last night for the Penguins' 5-4 overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Mellon Arena.

Despite a short summer, he got all of his celebrating and resting out of the way after he returned to his native Magnitogorsk, Russia. He vacationed in Spain with friends -- "Beaches and good water and good weather," he said -- and had his day with the Cup, taking it to his former hockey school and skating with it with his former Russian pro team, Metallurg.

"People were happy," Malkin said.

"It was a good summer, and I am ready" for the season to start again.

Malkin has seemed to find a steady left winger in Ruslan Fedotenko but is breaking in a new right winger this fall. Sniper Petr Sykora, who was not re-signed, had settled in fairly well on that line last season before injuries and lack of production got him bumped in favor of Max Talbot, whose tenacity and knack for big goals made a good fit.

Talbot, though, is out until November or December after offseason shoulder surgery.

For now, speedy Tyler Kennedy, a fixture much of last season on the third line centered by Jordan Staal, is auditioning for a spot with Malkin and Fedotenko.

"I like playing with Tyler," Malkin said. "He plays real well."

No matter whom he plays with, Malkin will be trying to top his career-best totals in points and assists (78, tops in the league) from last year. His 35 goals were 12 below his number from 2007-08, his second season in the NHL.

Fedotenko, who has won Stanley Cups with the Penguins and Tampa Bay, sees most of the room for improvement with Malkin in consistency.

"At times, he is an unbelievable player," Fedotenko said. "Some teams play him tougher and he just finds a way to get through [traffic]. If he can elevate his game to perform like that every game, you can't ask for any better than that.

"I've played with a lot of great players -- Vinny Levacalier, Marty St. Louis, Brad Richards, Keith Primeau in his prime, Simon Gagne. I've been lucky I've played with great players, but I feel like he's unique and he's in his own group."

Although his English keeps improving, Malkin said having Russian as a common language with Fedotenko continues to help their chemistry.

Malkin has taken a stab at teaching a few teammates some Russian, including the team's other star center, Sidney Crosby, Talbot and defenseman Brooks Orpik.

"Just bad words," Malkin said. "It's just joking."

Malkin's transition back to Pittsburgh this season has been a bit difficult because he returned to a house he bought in the area midway through last season and is not used to being in a big home by himself.

He lived with defenseman Sergei Gonchar his first 21/2 seasons, and his parents spent much of the second half of last season and the playoffs visiting.

His parents, who became minor celebrities from their seats in the stands, could be coming in time for the regular-season opener Oct. 2 at home against the New York Islanders, Malkin said.

That's if they can work out a detail.

"There's a small problem with my big dog," Malkin said, adding that he wants them to bring the dog, but the paperwork is extensive because of the pet's size.

He doesn't know the English word for the breed.

There is one place Malkin is ever more comfortable-- with his teammates at the rink, especially after the Penguins' roster stayed relatively intact over the summer.

"Ray [Shero, the general manager] did a good job," Malkin said. "Good players stayed on the team. We have more experience. We didn't change a lot of players. That's good for the team."

NOTES -- Penguins winger Chris Kunitz scored 44 seconds into overtime. ... Penguins center Sidney Crosby scored two goals in the third period, both from the right corner of the net, the first of them on a power play, with winger Eric Tangradi getting the first assist on both. Kunitz and winger Chris Conner also scored in the third. ... Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury gave up power-play goals to Jakub Voracek and Maksim Mayorov and a short-side goal to Mayorov over the first two periods before Brad Thiessen gave up a goal by winger Alexandre Picard in the third. ... In a first-period battle of defensemen, the Penguins' Deryk Engelland dropped Columbus' Doug Lynch with a series of big rights. ... Attendance was 15,766. ... One of the referees was Stephen Walkom, of Moon, who stepped down as NHL vice president of officiating so he could return to the ice.

Shelly Anderson can be reached at or 412-263-1721.
First published on September 16, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Steelers' Parker runs into pointed fingers

Tuesday, September 15, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The headline on the story fairly screamed.

Fast Willie Looks Slow, Out Of Place

The article quoted two anonymous NFL scouts, who singled out Willie Parker -- not the offensive line -- for the Steelers' run-game problems in their victory against the Tennessee Titans last week.

"Pretty obvious. [Parker] dances too much, no burst, doesn't even read the holes very well," one scout said.

"The line isn't good, but it's not that bad, either. I don't know if [Rashard] Mendenhall is any better than Parker, but he can't be much worse," the other said.


And they say the media overreacts and is too quick to judge.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers running back Willie Parker ran for 19 yards last week versus the Titans.

That's crazy talk after just one game. It's too soon to bury Parker or, for that matter, the offensive line. At least that's what Parker and I think. That smile he said he had on his face when he reported back to work yesterday at the team's South Side compound? The scouts' assessments knocked it right off.

"I haven't lost nothin'," Parker growled. "I know what I can do."

More than his 13-carry, 19-yard game against the Titans, certainly.

"We kind of stunk it up; I know that," Parker said. "But I know that game will be just a [distant] memory down the road. We're going to be all right."

It wasn't just Parker who took heavy criticism. When your team runs for 36 yards, there's plenty of blame to go around. The offensive linemen came in for their share. "Of course," tackle Max Starks said. "We're used to that."

Parker said he won't allow the linemen to get down on themselves. First thing yesterday, he made sure to get them together and told them they and he won't be defined by the Tennessee game.

"I just wanted to let them know I really care about them and believe in them," Parker said. "We just all have to be accountable to one another. I told them, 'We've got to get this show on the road. We've got to be the talk of the town.'

"We've got to get the running game fixed early and get it right. We've got one of the best quarterbacks in the league. If we get the running game going, that will make him even better."

Later, Parker told the media to do what the two scouts did and pile on him, not his linemen.

"If you want to point fingers at the run game, always start with me, first and foremost. I'm the running back. I have to make things happen back there. There were places to run [against the Titans]. I just wasn't hitting the holes."

Smart man, Parker.

That's Football 101: Be good to the big guys and they'll be good to you.

"It meant a lot," tackle Willie Colon said. "He told us he wasn't as sharp as he could have been the other night. We told him it wasn't just him and it wasn't just us. It was all of us. If we all put our hands in the pile, we'll get the job done right."

I'm more worried about Parker's confidence than his blockers'. I'm more concerned about his mindset than his burst or his ability to still hit the holes. "He's one of those guys who, when his mind is clear, he's at his best," Colon said.

It's hard to say that's the case with Parker now. The Steelers didn't do a contract extension with him this summer and he will be a free agent at the end of the season. Some players use that as motivation to have a big year. Others take it personally, feel unappreciated and lose their swagger. For the team's sake, Parker had better be among that first group. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knows that. That's why he made it a point before the Tennessee game to say, "Willie Parker's our runner."

For his part, Parker insisted his mind is right.

"All I have to do is play football. Everything else will take care of itself."

There are three reasons to think Parker and the running game will be better against the Chicago Bears Sunday.

One, Parker's playing time against the Titans was his first significant action since last season. He missed three exhibition games this summer and had just four carries in the other. "I can't say I wasn't ready," he said. "I just wasn't used to being hit. I didn't feel as comfortable as I normally do."

Two, the Bears' defense won't be as stout as the Titans', especially without linebackers Brian Urlacher and Pisa Tinoisamoa. Urlacher is out for the season after dislocating his right wrist against the Green Bay Packers Sunday night, and Tinoisamoa won't play because of a right knee sprain.

And three, well, Colon explained it best. "Willie is angry. His urgency is pretty high right now. He sees that people are looking away from him a little [as one of the NFL's top backs]. That really bothers him because he's such a great competitor. He knows he's got to earn that respect again."

Said Parker, simply: "I'm excited about the game this week."

For the chance for the Steelers to go to 2-0.

For the opportunity to take a little heat off his blockers.

And, yes, you bet, for the sheer thrill of shutting up his critics.

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on September 15, 2009 at 12:00 am