Friday, September 30, 2011

A tale of two seasons for Bucs

By John Perrotto
Beaver County Times
September 30, 2011

MILWAUKEE, WI - SEPTEMBER 27: Neil Walker(notes) #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates high fives Ronny Cedeno(notes) #5 after scoring during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on September 27, 2011 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

Frank Coonelly said during spring training that it was time for the Pirates to "turn the corner" in 2011.

With the 2011 season now in the books, how does the Pirates club president feel about his team?

"I'll let you be the judge of that," Coonelly said.

OK, here's Judge John's verdict: Hung jury.

On one hand, the season can be considered a success because the Pirates improved by 15 victories over their 57-win debacle of 2010. Arizona and Milwaukee were the only other major-league clubs to raise their win totals by a larger margin and both won division titles.

On the other hand, the season can be considered a failure. The Pirates led the National League Central as late at July 26 then collapsed and finished 24 games behind the Brewers by losing 43 of their last 62 games.

So, the Pirates headed into the off-season as an unknown commodity. Are they ready to contend into September in 2012 or will it still be a few more years before the postseason is a realistic goal?

General manager Neal Huntington, armed with a three-year contract extension through 2014, is bullish on the Buccos.

"Our expectation is we're going to play better baseball for six months next year," Huntington said. "We focus on the process of improving. If we follow the process, the result will take care of itself. We showed a lot of good things for four months. The next step is doing it for six months.

"We had a lot of injuries but not once did you hear (manager) Clint Hurdle or our coaching staff ever talk how broken we were at times. Our team fought and it battled and it was a great learning experience for our young players.

"You look at the center of production in the batting order, the top of the rotation, the back of the bullpen on other teams and almost all have older players than we do in those spots. That presents a challenge but also an opportunity for us to improve."

There were reasons for optimism in 2011.

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen took another step toward becoming a superstar, second baseman Neil Walker built on his fine rookie season, Joel Hanrahan became a lockdown closer and enigmatic Charlie Morton showed signs he might still become an above-average starting pitcher.

Yet the final two months of the season also provide reason for pessimism in 2012. The Pirates of August and September were a long way from respectable.

That dichotomy from the April-July Pirates and the August-September Pirates is what is already setting up 2012 to be an intriguing season, though.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Time for Texans to show toughness is now

The Houston Chronicle
September 27, 2011

The worst thing you can say about a team is that it chokes.

The second-worst thing you can say about a team is that it's soft - mentally and physically.

The Texans haven't blown any 35-3 leads, so they're not known as chokers. But they are known as a soft team, and they don't like it.

Mike Lombardi was the first to slap that label on them last season, when they were blowing so many games in the fourth quarter and overtime. He reiterated it before the draft and during training camp.

Naturally, Lombardi isn't their favorite columnist or NFL Network analyst, but there's one way to prove him wrong. Blowing two leads in the fourth quarter at the Superdome and surrendering 23 points in the process is not the right way to do it.

Beating the best

Fortunately for the Texans, they have another chance to dispel the notion Sunday at Reliant Stadium. If people think you're not tough enough, then beat the team that, year in and year out, is the toughest in the NFL.

When you think of physical teams, which is the first that comes to mind? The Pittsburgh Steelers, of course.

Perennially, the Steelers are the toughest on offense, defense and special teams. But it starts with a defense that just seems to pack a little more punch than that of their opponents.

Can you imagine a Dick LeBeau defense allowing 23 points in the fourth quarter? Can you imagine the Steelers allowing the same two-point conversion pass twice? Of course you can't. Because they're the Steelers.

Defense sets the standard for the Steelers' physical philosophy. Counting this season, the Steelers have ranked outside of the top 10 in defense two times in the last 15 years. They've been in the top five eight times.

Since LeBeau returned as their defensive coordinator in 2004, they've been out of the top five in defense one time. This season, they rank second.

LeBeau's philosophy is to stop the run first and then turn loose his blitzers in passing situations. From 2004 through 2010, the Steelers ranked in the top three in run defense.

The last two times the Texans have played the Steelers, they've been embarrassed. Pittsburgh dominated them so thoroughly it was laughable.

Painful memories

Remember that game at Reliant in September of 2005? The Texans left the roof open to wear down the Steelers, who wore their black jerseys. The only ones worn down were Texans fans in the heat. The Steelers frolicked in the heat and humidity and departed with a 27-7 victory.

In 2008, the Texans went to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers wiped the Heinz Field floor with them and won 38-17.

The Steelers are a Super Bowl contender just about every year. The Texans are still trying to make the playoffs for the first time.

The Steelers lost the Super Bowl to Green Bay in February. Three games into this season, they're struggling on offense. Their line has been decimated by injuries. They might be 2-1, but they haven't run the ball the way they want.

Defensively, the Steelers may be getting older, but that makes them more irritable. They can still be nasty and dominant. They can still make life miserable for quarterbacks.

For a team like the Texans with so much to prove, beat the Steelers, and people around the country will take notice.

Sunday is the perfect opportunity for the Texans to prove they're not the same old Texans that can't score in the red zone and can't protect a fourth-quarter lead. They can prove the fourth-quarter collapse at New Orleans was an abnormality.

Sunday isn't the time to wilt at the sight of black-and-gold jerseys, but it is the time for the Texans to muscle up, get tough and treat Reliant Stadium like it's an octagon.

Score, Steelers

Thursday, September 29, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 25: Rashard Mendenhall(notes) #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the football during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Steelers won 23-20. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

We could go with Ben Roethlisberger's colorful explanation of the Steelers' offensive struggles: "The sky's the limit for us — we just have to, you know, get on the plane."

Or we could say it in three words: This offense stinks.

Seriously, I'm sick of watching it. The Steelers must be sick of watching it. And if they don't start scoring soon — like Sunday against the turbo-charged Houston Texans — their season won't matter much past Halloween, or around the time Tom Brady visits Heinz Field.

The NFL is a scoring league. The Steelers don't score enough. They have long been dependent on phenomenal defense. Isn't it time the offense stepped up, particularly with the defense looking less than phenomenal?

Did I mention the Steelers don't score enough? They're ranked 26th in points per game and only that high because the defense scored one of their six touchdowns. They have cracked the top 10 in scoring once in coordinator Bruce Arians' five years, tying for ninth in 2007.

That was supposed to change, dramatically, this season. One local columnist (I have no idea who) predicted this would be the highest-scoring team in franchise history.

This was supposed to be a high-octane — sorry — high-scoring outfit that could torture teams any way it pleased. Roethlisberger had settled into such a groove during a turnover-free preseason that he was practically ready to call games on his own.

Here's the quote: "I would feel comfortable with Ben calling the plays in all phases, not just the spread offense," Arians said before the Steelers lit up the Falcons in an exhibition game.

Another quote from camp: "We know we can be really good," receiver Mike Wallace said. "Great, actually."

Finally this from Roethlisberger: "We have relied for such a long time on this defense to kind of carry us. As an offense, we want to score a lot of points and make it easy on our defense."

Easy? Roethlisberger & Co. have cannibalized their defense by committing turnovers like the Buffalo Bills in a Super Bowl. Roethlisberger, playing the role of Jim Kelly, has seven all by himself.

Incredibly, the Steelers have had two games (out of three, remember) during which they turned it over on three straight possessions and committed turnovers ON CONSECUTIVE SNAPS. Forget the Bills in a Super Bowl. I'm wondering if the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers could boast of such comic ineptitude.

Even in a 24-0 victory over Seattle, the offense looked sickly near the goal line. In his six carries inside the 5 that day, Rashard Mendenhall gained five yards.

Last we saw these guys, they were scoring two second-half field goals against a ravaged Colts defense that couldn't stop the Cleveland Browns a week earlier.

Yeah, the line is beat up and below average. Fall's here, too. Deal with it. The Steelers have stubbornly refused to dial up reinforcements, the way Baltimore did with Bryant McKinnie, so they must believe in their people.

Roethlisberger does. He was asked yesterday how the offense might react to a Texas shootout.

"We'll be ready," he said.

The line proved it could protect Roethlisberger during a 10-point, 177-yard first quarter Sunday. But that was before Roethlisberger got careless, allowing Robert Mathis time enough to take five laps around the stadium and crash into his back, forcing a fumble that gave the Colts life.

Two turnovers later, Indy had a halftime lead.

Roethlisberger hasn't been the only problem:

>> Mendenhall needs to stop tap dancing and start running with the ferocity we saw in the AFC Championship Game.

>> Emmanuel Sanders killed a possible touchdown drive Sunday with a drop, evoking his critical drop last year at Buffalo. Weslye Saunders bobbled a sure first down to ruin another drive.

>> Arians needs to turn his playbook to the page titled "Bubble Screen to Hines" and light it on fire.

>> Jonathan Scott needs to play within the rules. As NBC noted, he is tied for NFL's most-penalized player since midway through last season. And that was before he was flagged for lining up in the Steelers' backfield.

Hey, how come Dwight Freeney wasn't penalized for that?

Finally, this offense needs to find its personality. Seems obvious the quarterback and coordinator want to be a passing team. So be one. Break out the no-huddle attack that sped 60 yards for the winning field goal Sunday.

Don't abandon Mendenhall. Run to complement the pass, the way Green Bay does.

Or go out and get somebody like Vonta Leach and smash people's faces in all day. I don't care. Just score.

'Cause you know the Texans will.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Steelers season is riding on Harrison's back

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Curtis Painter(notes) (7) fumbles after being hit by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison(notes) (92) during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. (AP)

Linebacker James Harrison's surgically repaired back is starting to look strong enough to carry the Steelers defense. But it might have to carry a lot more. How about the entire team?

You should be thinking:

Heaven help Harrison find the strength.

It's no secret the offensive line has major issues. It lost starting tackle Willie Colon (torn triceps) in that horrible opening-game loss at Baltimore and was battered and bruised almost beyond recognition in the 23-20 win Sunday night at Indianapolis with injuries to tackles Jonathan Scott (ankle) and Marcus Gilbert (shoulder) and guard Doug Legursky (shoulder). It got so bad it looked as if tight end/H-back David Johnson might have to play tackle. "We were about to pull D-linemen over there to play O-line," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

Scott's injury appeared to be most serious. Some of you probably are saying that's a good thing because he's so bad, but be careful what you wish for. Trai Essex was the next man up at tackle Sunday night. If the coaches thought he was better than Scott, he would have been starting. Flozell Adams saved the season last year. Could he do it again? Can the team re-sign him and fit him in under the salary cap?

Adams or no Adams, the Steelers need a quick solution or maybe just more miracles from offensive line coach Sean Kugler, who successfully plugged holes last season all the way to the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger, who was sacked three times by the Colts, can't continue to take a beating. He spent much of the game looking over his shoulder for defensive end Dwight Freeney, who owned Scott. The running game was nonexistent. Rashard Mendenhall had nowhere to go.

"It's going to be a scary film meeting with coach Kugs," Essex said.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau probably enjoyed grading the game tape a lot more. His guys won it for the Steelers. I know, they dominated a lame Colts offense that was without quarterback Peyton Manning, just as they dominated a horrible Seattle Seahawks offense without star wide receiver Sidney Rice the week before in a 21-0 win. I also know the defense will get a much tougher test Sunday in Houston against a Texans team that put up 34 points in a win against Indianapolis, 23 in a win against Miami and 33 in a loss Sunday to New Orleans.

Still, I liked what I saw from the defense Sunday night. Harrison was especially terrific. It was more than just his sack of Colts quarterback Curtis Painter late in the game, which resulted in a fumble and a touchdown for safety Troy Polamalu. It was his game-high seven tackles, including two for losses. He fought through tight end Dallas Clark to tackle running back Delone Carter for a 1-yard loss. He pushed back offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo into quarterback Kerry Collins and forced an incompletion. He closed quickly to tackle wide receiver Austin Collie for a 1-yard loss after a catch.

No one accused Harrison of being old and done after this performance. No one said he appeared to be "running in mud," as Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler did in August.

"This was the best I've felt all season," Harrison said. "I feel like I'm getting a little better each week."

Harrison had two back surgeries in the offseason. He said he's in agony after a game. "I'm talking pain." By Wednesday, after taking painkilling medication, he's ready for the one practice a week with contact. There is more pain. "Then, by Saturday, I'm ready to go."

Teammates have a hard time believing Harrison isn't 100 percent again.

"I think he plays that back thing up a little bit," linebacker Larry Foote said, grinning. "If I saw him getting dogged or knocked back, then I might believe it. But all I see him do is dominate."

Polamalu also played his best game after being bothered by leg troubles late last season and into training camp this summer. "He was flying out there," Foote said. "That long hair was really flying ..." The fumble recovery and touchdown were huge. "That was a great play by James," Polamalu said. "I had a great front seat to it." Polamalu also broke up a couple of passes for Clark. He blitzed from the corner and blew through Carter to force a Collins incompletion. He spun around running back Joseph Addai to get pressure on Collins and force another incompletion. He knocked Addai back with a hard tackle.

"They make exciting plays when they need to," Roethlisberger said of Polamalu and Harrison. "I'm glad they're on my side."

The Steelers need the two, now more than ever. They need them to stay healthy. The defense is going to have to carry the team until the offense finds a way to solve its line problems. It might have to carry it for a long, long time.

Harrison's back had better hold up.

"It will," Foote said. "I mean, just look at him. Watch him play. Look at the tape. You can see how strong he is. No one on our team works harder. He loves his body. He's always working to make it stronger. He's a maniac."

Foote gets no argument here.

Harrison is all that and more.

He might just be the key to the rest of the Steelers season.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

Monday, September 26, 2011

Steelers have nowhere to run

Monday, September 26, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 25: Mike Wallace(notes) #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers hauls in an 81-yard touchdown pass in the first half against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS — At least some of the shrapnel from the Steelers' season-opening implosion in Baltimore has begun to reassemble.

It's scattershot, but it's there.

That old defense finally found its first turnover thanks to James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, even if leaks still sprung. Ben Roethlisberger has found another notch to his throwing, even if a few of his decisions have been stupefying. And Mike Wallace has amazingly found a path to make his fantasy of 2,000 receiving yards come true.

The pieces, if not the whole, show promise. But as this fabulously flawed 23-20 victory over the Peyton-free Indianapolis Colts illustrated Sunday night, the glue has gone missing.

And that glue, from this vantage point high atop Lucas Oil Stadium, looked a lot like a running game.

Yeah, I know ... what running game?

Rashard Mendenhall carried 18 times for 37 yards, a meager 2.1 per attempt. Mewelde Moore added nine yards, Isaac Redman six, and the Steelers as a whole rushed for a whopping 67. Through three games, Mendenhall has a total of 148 yards and a single touchdown.

That's ridiculous.

"It was tough sledding out there," Mendenhall told me with a slight head shake. "We're going to need to run at some point, so it's something we're going to need to work on."

Maybe it was no coincidence, but coach Mike Tomlin used the same term.

"It was tough sledding all night for the most part in that area," Tomlin said. "We've got to do better."

They most certainly do. Anyone thinking the Steelers can return to this same stadium for Super Bowl XLVI without a semblance of a running game is fooling themselves.

No, I'm not partaking in the prehistoric notion that they need to play "Steelers football," either. I know this team doesn't have a Jerome Bettis, I know the line has been awful, and I know the don't-touch-anyone NFL has become a passing league. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has every reason to think pass first.

But here's a sample of what happens when you can't run at all: Of the Steelers' 16 third-down plays, 12 were third-and-7 or longer. Five of the latter were converted because of good passes by Roethlisberger, but five were incompletions, and two others resulted in sacks and lost fumbles that led to Indianapolis points.

The Colts knew what was coming and adjusted.

The same Colts who had allowed an average of 136 yards through their first two losses, fourth-highest in the NFL.

"It's very important that we get that running back," receiver Hines Ward said. "We're a much more balanced team when we're doing that, and it really opens up the middle of the field for me and Heath Miller to make catches, too. It helps everything. When you can't run, you get one-dimensional. But you know, it's the third week. We're still getting comfortable."

Right, but the Steelers are trying to build a champion, not just slip past last-place teams. They need to run the ball to get better at it. And they do have the main ingredient to run. Lest we forget, Mendenhall rushed for 1,273 yards last season.

"We've got to take it into the game," Mendenhall said. "I know we can run."

Mendenhall can do better, for sure. He missed his share of holes and tiptoed around others, which might explain why Tomlin had Moore out there for the winning two-minute drive.

"We were just in two-minute football," Tomlin said, dismissing that. "Of course, we've got a great deal of comfort in what Mewelde is capable of doing."

The dominant culprit here is the line. It didn't help that right tackle Marcus Gilbert and guard Doug Legursky went down with shoulder injuries, but left tackle Jonathan Scott was a revolving door, and the rest fared little better. Symbolic of the evening was a first-quarter play in which Mendenhall arrived at the line all-out, only to be flattened by Indianapolis linebacker Pat Angerer.

I don't care if Max Starks and Flozell Adams spent their summers consuming corn dogs and cola. Someone give them a call.

Funny thing is, to hear the Steelers leading up to the game, they thought they were doing mostly fine with the run. Legursky was among many who dismissed their running issues as "just a couple of execution things on the goal-line package," and Roethlisberger said he was "not concerned."

Anyone concerned now?

Running is no longer the way in the NFL, but neither is it optional.

In QB-dominated league, Colts still come up short

By Bob Kravitz
The Indianapolis Star
September 26, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 25: Robert Mathis(notes) #98 of the Indianapolis Colts causes a fumble by Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half of their game at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

They were inspired. They were passionate. They were prideful. They played brilliant defense and even got a heart-stopping, game-tying touchdown drive out of -- yes -- Curtis Painter.

And the Indianapolis Colts still lost.

They ran the football. They stopped the Pittsburgh running game, absolutely stuffed it. They swarmed and harassed Ben Roethlisberger, forced three turnovers and -- did I mention it? -- got a score-tying touchdown drive led by Painter.

And they still lost.

Pittsburgh 23, Colts 20.

The Indianapolis Colts have been to the playoffs nine straight seasons, and any talk of a moral victory might draw a Dwight Freeney head slap, but at least they were competitive.

"We're still measured by wins around here," coach Jim Caldwell said.

They did almost everything they had to do to win this game, and still, it wasn't enough. Not with Roethlisberger behind center, two minutes remaining and the game on the line.

The Colts showed a national TV audience and themselves they're not really as bad as they looked those first two weeks.

But it wasn't good enough.

The defense deserved a better fate than this. They stopped the run. They swarmed Roethlisberger. They got turnovers to set up the first 13 points. They did to the Steelers what the Steelers usually do to opponents: Beat them up on the line of scrimmage, taking advantage of Pittsburgh's decimated offensive line.

If Indy is to have any chance of winning games, it will have to play this kind of manic defense. Without efforts like this one, the Colts have no chance. None.

Early in the second quarter, the Steelers led 10-0 and appeared to be heading toward another crushing score. Indy was stopping the run; that wasn't the problem. But the third-and-longs were a defensive problem once again. Then there was the bomb to Mike Wallace, who somehow left linebacker Pat Angerer in his vapor trail.

Then came Robert Mathis.

And Dwight Freeney.

In a career filled with dominant games, the bookends were more dominant than they've ever been. Freeney did things to Pittsburgh left tackle Jonathan Scott that are illegal in most states. Freeney and Mathis got sacks, fumbles, pressures and hurries.

The Colts aren't the Colts without Peyton Manning, but Mathis and Freeney are still Pro Bowlers, and probably earned themselves another trip to Hawaii with their Sunday night work.

This franchise made its name on offense, on Manning and Reggie Wayne and the rest, but on this night, the defense rose up and stopped the madness. The linebackers, operating without Gary Brackett, flew to the ball. The defensive tackles won the ugly battles. The secondary, except for a couple of blips in the first half, held tough even without Melvin Bullitt.

"Extraordinary effort," Caldwell said of the defense. "Absolutely unbelievable effort."

But you can't win if you can't score (think Abe Gibron once said that). The Colts scored just one offensive touchdown all night. They got their other off a Jamaal Anderson fumble recovery. They were limited to field goals after two more turnovers set them up in good field position.

Your final Colts QB numbers: 18-for-40 for 153 yards. And that's in a league when everybody is throwing for 300-plus.

Kerry Collins is Kerry Collins, although after Sunday's concussion, he's not quite sure who he is. He's gotten better at mastering the offense operationally but still has no timing with his receivers, still makes head-shaking decisions with the ball.

And Painter, well, is Painter. He led the Colts to seven points but left seven on the field with the Pierre Garcon overthrow, then held onto the ball too long before getting hammered on the blind side by James Harrison.

Give Painter a little bit of credit. He's been our punching bag for a couple of years -- and, honestly, for a pretty good reason. A 9.8 quarterback rating in limited regular-season work doesn't lie, nor does a 28.6 completion percentage. And those first two Painter-led series were somewhere south of atrocious, moving NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth to say, "Now you now why they gave Kerry Collins $4 million."

On the first drive, Painter overthrew Garcon, who was wide open for a walk-in touchdown after putting a double-move on Pittsburgh defensive back Ike Taylor.

On the second drive, he held onto the ball too long, got blind-sided by Harrison and fumbled. The ball bounced nicely to Troy Polamalu, who ran in for the then- go-ahead touchdown.

Then, trailing 20-13, Painter began to look a little bit like an NFL quarterback, showing why Wayne has been such a fervent supporter. He led an 80-yard, game-tying touchdown drive, throwing two sweet passes downfield to Garcon. It was something.

But this is a quarterback league. And the Colts quarterback is up in the coaches' box these days, calling plays he can't execute.

Bob Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star. Call him at (317) 444-6643 or email Follow Bob on Twitter at @bkravitz.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pirates' free fall historic failure

Friday, September 23, 2011

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 20: Manager Clint Hurdle of the Pittsburgh Pirates watches from the dugout during the Major League Baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on September 20, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It's Free Shirt Friday at PNC Park, where the Pirates and Cincinnati Reds open the final homestand of 2011.

Yeah, I called to check.

While our city's sports fans have been immersed in the Steelers' fall and rise, the Penguins' stars back on ice and Pitt's move to the ACC, it's gone almost completely unnoticed that the Pittsburgh Baseball Club has been remastering the art of what it does best: Epic failure.

How else to describe a team that was 53-47 and in first place through 100 games on July 25, only to lose 40 of its past 56 games?

If not epic, then how about historic?

I got to thinking over the past few days — maybe when Charlie Morton was picked off second base, maybe when that pop-up plopped between Alex Presley and Xavier Paul, maybe when the Dodgers pounded the Pirates by a margin that exceeded all but four of the NFL's 14 games that same Sunday — that this free fall out of first place just has to be some sort of record.

Thanks to the wizards at Elias Sports Bureau, I can confirm this morning that it is.

(Cue drumroll.)

In the modern history of Major League Baseball that began in 1900, no team has fared worse than these Pirates after holding first place through 100 games. Actually, no team has even come close. The Pirates' 16-40 record down the stretch makes for a .286 winning percentage. Next-worst was the 1977 Chicago Cubs, who went 60-40 to lead their division through 100 games, then went 21-41 for a .339 winning percentage.

These Pirates went from delight to disgrace before Regis Philbin could break out one chorus of "We Are Family."

And please, let's not talk about how there's been progress.

Sure, the current 69-87 is an upgrade over the pathetic 57-105 last year, but that was expected at the outset. Certainly, much, much more was expected by late July. But the pitching, which carried the team through 100 games with a 3.39 ERA, has a 5.10 ERA since. And the hitting, which has been lousy all along, has a .243 average and a franchise-record 1,251 strikeouts.

That's not progress.

Individually, Jeff Karstens' 3.38 ERA and Joel Hanrahan's 39 saves went above and beyond. Andrew McCutchen's home runs rose from 16 to 23, and Neil Walker and a couple other pitchers were steady. But good luck from there. Of the team's vaunted young core, Jose Tabata couldn't stay on the field, and Pedro Alvarez batted .194, struck out almost as often as a pitcher, then petulantly refused to play winter ball.

That's not progress.

I called earlier this summer for Neal Huntington to be extended as general manager, and I stand by that now that he's had three years added. He has the right plan for a franchise with a smaller revenue base, and he has the right ideas about taking it to the next level.

But Huntington continues to make mistakes with major league acquisitions — Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz added to a string of expensive position-player failures — and must address why it keeps happening. He can start by firing anyone who has recommended a shortstop to him during the past four years.

I've also applauded the work of Clint Hurdle, and I'll stand by the manager, too. The one positive the Pirates deserve to take from this summer is that they did, to borrow Hurdle's term, "break down barriers." They got to first place. They were shown on national TV. They fed off big crowds. The next time it happens, it won't seem like a circus sideshow, and that's to Hurdle's credit.

But the lack of offense belies Hurdle's background as a hitting coach. If neither he nor actual hitting coach Gregg Ritchie could get anyone to overachieve, hard questions must be asked.

Moreover, for all of Hurdle's hilarity, folksiness and energy — all genuine, all welcome — he's had no more answers down the stretch than anyone else. Ever since that 101st game, this has looked little different than a John Russell team.

Remember that 101st game?

Right. That one. It was the 19-inning loss July 26 in Atlanta, where umpire Jerry Meals' blown call sent the season, symbolically or otherwise, into a tailspin that I'm guessing will carry right through a season-ending spanking next week in Milwaukee.

That whole Miller Park thing hasn't exactly improved, either.

If the Pirates try to convince anyone that 2011 brought progress, they'll need a lot more than free shirts to finish the sale.

First to worst

The Pirates' 16-40 record in the past 56 games marks the worst winning percentage (.286) in Major League Baseball history after a team was in first place through 100 games. Here are the three worst such collapses:

Team: Year — First 100 — Afterward — Pct.

Pirates: 2011 — 53-47 — 16-40 — .286

Chicago Cubs: 1977 — 60-40 — 21-41 — .339

Montreal Expos: 1989 — 59-41 — 22-40 — .355

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Week 3 matchup: Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) at Indianapolis Colts (0-2)

8:20 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 25, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis; TV: WTHR-13. Radio: ESPN 1070-AM, HANK 97.1-FM

By Phillip Wilson
The Indianapolis Star
September 21, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 18: Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers hands the ball off to Rashard Mendenhall(notes) #34 for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks during the game on September 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)


What was supposed to be a marquee primetime matchup on national TV has been reduced by the injury absence of Colts QB Peyton Manning to a test of can the home team keep it close? It’s not like Pittsburgh has started out like reigning AFC champions, but the Steelers rebounded from a 35-7 opening loss at Baltimore with a seemingly routine 24-0 home shutout of Seattle. The Steelers responsible for making the tackles considered their bounce-back triumph a reminder to critics that their defenders aren’t over the hill just yet. Safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker James Harrison are still solid players and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau dials up blitzes like few in the game.

The question is quite simple: How will QB Kerry Collins handle the pressure. He’s hung onto the ball too long at times in his two starts, but the offensive line has had its share of leaks, too. The Colts’ only two touchdowns so far have come when trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter. In other words, the Colts have finally got the ball in the end zone when opposing defenses have been protecting big leads with prevent-style schemes. It doesn’t bode well for Collins, who has had four fumbles in two games. The Steelers will be coming hard and it’s up to the passer and his line to do something to discourage Pittsburgh’s aggressive behavior.

If there’s a crack in the Steel City team’s armor, it could be on its offensive line. The Steelers are thin there, starting a rookie at one tackle spot. QB Ben Roethlisberger has been banged up, taken six sacks and thrown three interceptions. Look for Pittsburgh to revert to its roots with a power run game. RB Rashard Mendenhall has just 111 yards, 3.6 yards per carry. His backup, Isaac Redman, is averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Both have TDs and runs of at least 20 yards. So to take some of the pressure off blocking the Colts’ Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Steelers will look to wear out the smaller, speed defense with some good, old-fashioned pounding. It’s worked for others against the Colts in the past.

If the Colts can force some turnovers, then this game won’t be as ugly as some Indy fans fear. It sounds like rah-rah high school stuff to suggest the Colts have a lot of character in their locker room, but it’s true. It’s meaningless to rationalize any positives in an 0-2 start. It’s about results. And this is a chance, however far-fetched it might seem, for the Colts to knock off a Super Bowl contender and instill some confidence that not all is lost without Manning. That said, the gut feel is that Pittsburgh will win out because the visitors can put the clamps on Collins and squeeze out enough points against a game but outmanned defense.


Lost in all the offensive ineptitude is the fact the Colts have run the ball well so far. Go figure. Joseph Addai is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and rookie Delone Carter is at 3.9 ypc with a team-best 18-yard rush. But the Steelers’ 3-4 can be stingy. The 100.5 yards allowed per game is higher than normal. But expect that number to come down this season. EDGE: STEELERS.


QB Kerry Collins is ranked among the NFL’s worst passers, he’s completed just 50.7 percent of 69 passes, taken five sacks and fumbled four times. Pittsburgh has six sacks and blitzes from all angles, as evidenced by the fact six Steelers have contributed to that sack total. The Colts must throw quick-hit passes, screens and do something to help neutralize the blitzes. EDGE: STEELERS.


It wasn’t until the Browns’ Peyton Hillis broke a 24-yard TD run in the final quarter that the Colts’ run defense really cracked last week. Up until then, Colts tacklers held their own. But the numbers don’t lie. The Colts are allowing 136.5 rush yards per game. Pittsburgh is averaging just 95 yards per game, but 3.7 per carry. The Steelers will look to pound it. EDGE: STEELERS.


The key to the game, probably, because the Colts’ best defensive weapons are Pro Bowl pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. If they can’t get constant pressure on Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who has taken six sacks, a suspect secondary will be exposed. WR Mike Wallace has emerged as a go-to guy with 16 catches for 233 yards. EDGE: STEELERS.


The Colts’ Adam Vinatieri has hit four-of-five FGs. Pat McAfee is averaging 48.9 yards per punt and as a kickoff specialist has four touchbacks in eight chances. But the Colts struggle in coverage and returning. The Steelers’ Shaun Suisham has four touchbacks in seven kickoffs. The Steelers’ Antonio Brown averages 31.5 yards per kickoff return. EDGE: EVEN.


Both are Tony Dungy disciples, the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Colts’ Jim Caldwell. Difference is, Tomlin has won once and lost once in the Super Bowl. Caldwell has lost in his only trip. The hard-nosed Tomlin is an ideal fit for the Steel City’s team. But Colts fans are constantly questioning if the mild-mannered Caldwell is the right fit for his team. EDGE: STEELERS.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ward refuses to act age

By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
September 20, 2011

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 18: Hines Ward(notes) #86 of the Pittsburgh Steelers makes a catch on the sideline in front of Walter Thurmond(notes) #28 of the Seattle Seahawks during the game on September 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Hines Ward admits that his “day is coming.” He knows that in time he will lose his starting job with the Steelers. He just hopes it doesn’t happen any time soon — as in this year.

Gone are the days when Ward runs routs as Ben Roethlisberger’s No. 1 target.

Ward may still be the self-proclaimed “leader of the wideouts” when it comes to know-how and leadership. But the main man on the receiving corps is now Mike Wallace, the third-year speedster who continues to put up remarkable numbers.

Then there are the two fleet-footed second-year pros, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Next year, one of them will surely nudge Ward closer to retirement. One of them will join Wallace in the starting lineup when the 2012 season begins. Both offer so much talent.

But for now, Ward remains a viable option. He may be 35 but he still has much to contribute. Granted, he’s not as fast as he was in his prime although he was never a burner to begin with. He may have a harder time getting open than he once did, especially against big, physical cornerbacks. No longer does the opposition’s best cover corner guard him.

But Ward will still have his moments.

So far in two games, Roethlisberger has targeted Wallace 20 times. Ward and Brown were the intended receiver 15 times each. Wallace leads the team with 16 catches. Ward is second with nine. Brown is third with six.

And none of the young wide receivers block as well as Ward. It’s not even close.

In Sunday’s 24-0 win over the Seahawks, Wallace (126), Brown (67) and Sanders (44) each had more receiving yards than Ward (33). But it was Ward who was open on a trick play in the first quarter when Sanders threw to him for 15 yards. Then in the third quarter, Ward made a nifty catch along the sideline, keeping both feet inbounds for a 15-yard gain.

“Twinkle toes,” Ward, a “Dancing with the Stars” champion, said when describing that catch.

Roethlisberger called Ward’s catch a “phenomenal play on his part.”

In 2009, Ward signed a four-year contract extension that will allow him to finish his career with the Steelers. He’s locked in through the 2013 season.

The owner of 14 different Steelers’ receiving records, Ward ranks No. 8 on the NFL’s all-time receptions list with 963. He needs just 37 more to become just the eighth receiver in league history to reach 1,000.

He’s on pace this year to catch 72.

Ward doesn’t have many more years to play. But that doesn’t mean he’s fading fast. He still can make plays.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Defense rebounds, work remains

Monday, September 19, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 18: James Harrison(notes) #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts to sacking Tarvaris Jackson(notes) #7 of the Seattle Seahawks during the game on September 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Seahawks 24-0. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Nothing could have made a neater narrative for the Steelers than to see their defense bounce back, schematically and spiritually, from that abomination in Baltimore last week. And man, that script sure erupted to life Sunday with the 24-0 shutout of Seattle at Heinz Field.

Did you see Troy Polamalu soaring Superman-style into Tarvaris Jackson for a sack?

Or James Harrison one-arming Jackson like a flapjack?

Or Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, maybe the Steelers' most beleaguered men in the opener, swarming side to side to quash the run?

Or Ike Taylor spooking Seattle's coaches to the degree that Jackson threw his way twice all day?

And hey, how about James Farrior simply staying on the field?

It was a dominant performance, even if it came against a sorry set of Seahawks who mustered 164 total yards, including a ridiculous 31 on the ground, and tiptoed across midfield once. You'd have to imagine it was a blast for the 63,663 on hand, especially those who feared a sequel of the old/slow/dull show of the 35-7 loss to the Ravens.

On the inside, though, the reaction was about as subdued as I was hoping it would be. Time and again, defensive players were asked whether they had just expunged that Baltimore game, and each reply came with a bristle.

This was linebacker Larry Foote: "That stink is going to be with us probably halfway through the season."

Keisel: "I don't think it goes away. We did need to respond to what happened, but this was really just one game."

Woodley: "We're going to take criticism all year, just off that one game. Everybody's going to talk about that one game, each and every week."


If this is how the Steelers react to being humbled like that, then let them wear it all season. Let them remember how over-confident they were in preparation and execution. Let them watch the film over and over again.

Be sure that's what the remaining opponents will be doing.

The Baltimore blueprint for beating the Steelers' defense — Neutralize the Linebackers 101 — will be mimicked enough that John Harbaugh should have it copyrighted. The Ravens, for those who already blocked it out, took away the linemen with semi-controversial chop blocks, forced the inside linebackers to drop into pass coverage and kept a fullback close to fend off blitzes. The cumulative effect was that the linebackers had little freedom to operate and other areas of the defense were exposed.

The Seahawks attempted somewhat feebly to do the same, but the Steelers never let it matter.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, in the surprise of the day, pretty much abandoned the blitz for the first three quarters. The Steelers still moved the outside linebackers back and forth and — finally — moved Polamalu back closer to the line of scrimmage, but most of the heat had to come from the defensive line. That's exactly what veterans Keisel, Smith and Casey Hampton brought, thus freeing up the linebackers.

"It was about as simple as you get, and I don't think Seattle saw that coming," Keisel said, grinning through the beard. "Coach LeBeau's got a pretty good poker face."

It helped, too, that LeBeau and defensive line coach John Mitchell spent much of the week working with those linemen on fending off chop blocks.

"We were ready for it this time," nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "You have to have a lot of movement, a lot of left-right, and you've got to bounce right back up once you do get cut."

More of that is on the way.

The NFL is a copycat league. The Steelers will see it again next Sunday in Indianapolis, then again and again. No one will — or should — be dissuaded because the Seahawks failed.

"Yeah, they tried," Woodley said. "We know that's going to continue. People will keep looking at the Baltimore film. But that correction's been made."

Has it?

That comment might have been the closest to any lack of humility in the Steelers' locker room, and it's unfounded: The defense's next interception will be its first. So will its next fumble recovery. And four of the five sacks yesterday came in the fourth quarter, when the Seahawks were heaving up prayers.

This was OK. This was, as Mike Tomlin called it, "appropriate" in light of what came before.

Expect the Colts to give that blueprint another go.

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 18: Mike Wallace(notes) #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a pass in front of Earl Thomas(notes) #29 of the Seattle Seahawks in the second half during the game on September 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Game balls
Columnist Dejan Kovacevic picks Sunday's top performers:

Dick LeBeau, Steelers defensive coordinator
Sure, the Seahawks were lousy, but the defense still had to bounce back from its worst game in a decade. LeBeau achieved that by going back to basics.

Mike Wallace, Steelers WR
The offense's only good performer in Week 1 kept it going with eight catches for 126 yards, a touchdown and a 53-yard off-his-shoestrings gem in the third quarter.

Troy Polamalu, Steelers S
He tied for the team lead in tackles with eight, had a flying sack of Tarvaris Jackson and nearly picked off a pass for a touchdown. Anyone still talking about Polamalu's age?

First win nothing to crow about

Let's keep first victory in perspective
Monday, September 19, 2011

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 18: Mike Wallace(notes) #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a touchdown pass in front of Brandon Browner(notes) #39 of the Seattle Seahawks in the second half during the game on September 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

There was a genuine work-a-day, clock puncher's dignity in the way the Steelers broke the beaks of the Seahawks, you could argue, but the full persona of Rebound Sunday didn't reveal itself until Isaac Redman encountered Seattle's Kam Chancellor early in the second quarter.

Chancellor is the Seahawks' oversized strong safety, 6-3 and 232 by the flip cards, which is why Redman figured he was in for some intense punishment after breaking open 20 yards from the goal line with the Steelers leading 7-0.

Four plays earlier, Seattle linebacker Aaron Curry dropped a Ben Roethlisberger pass headed for Hines Ward, and now Chancellor needed to blow up a play to keep the Seahawks from going feathers up before it was even noon in Seattle.

"I knew he was a big guy and that he's not the kind of guy who's going to try and cut the legs out from under you," Redman said. "He's going to come in for the big hit, so I just set him up."

Redman gave him a head fake and hip feint right while flipping his gyroscope left on a dazzling 20-yard touchdown run. Chancellor, it so happens, is perfectly emblematic of the new Seahawks under Pete Carroll: bigger, faster and still not terribly good.

You can genuflect all you want for the any-given-Sunday gospel, but the more accurate reality is that while you don't get to play Norfolk State in this NFL, you still sometimes get to the play the Seahawks.

I was going to say that if this 24-0 Steelers victory were a cable sitcom, it would be called Curb Your Enthusiasm, but then Mike Tomlin said almost the same thing.

"It's not going to take one performance to take that [Baltimore] stench off us," Tomlin said a couple minutes after polishing his record to 5-0 in home openers. "We respect that."

You must respect also that the Seahawks came all this way just to provide the struggling Steelers with a copy of Chicken Soup for the Underachievers' Soul, especially when they're so busy remaking their roster into one that can qualify to draft Stanford's Andrew Luck before anyone else has a chance.

"Good Luck Seahawks" isn't a well-wisher's slogan; it's a directive.

Carroll and Seahawks GM John Schneider have already turned over 81 percent of Seattle's roster in two years, and that includes the deporting of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who spent Sunday throwing for 358 yards and a touchdown to boost the Tennessee Titans over Baltimore's stench spreaders.

Thus it's a nervous time for the remaining 19 percent, including new quarterback Tavaris Jackson, who made a pretty convincing case Sunday for why they had so little use for him in Minnesota.

"I'm just in shock with the offense," Jackson said after eight of his teams 10 possessions ended with a punt. "We just didn't play well at all. We couldn't put two third-down conversions back-to-back. That's embarrassing."

Embarrassment isn't forever, as the Steelers demonstrated by rumbling to a 17-0 halftime lead with an offense that is apparently capable of putting one foot in front of the other without a turnover.

Tomlin told his fellas pretty flatly they're the same team that was blasted only a week ago, but that doesn't mean he won't find some improvement when he analyzes it.

"I think he was just trying to remind us that you don't get too high in this business," said tight end Heath Miller, who caught just one of Ben Roethlisberger's 22 completions. "We have to keep in mind that it's a work in progress, but I think it was better than last week. We didn't turn the ball over."

Coming off a seven-turnover Sunday, a lot's gonna look good. The Steelers offensive line, for example, challenged still again when starting left guard Chris Kemoeatu couldn't start because of a knee injury, got highly professional performances from Ramon Foster and from right tackle Marcus Gilbert in his first NFL start.

"We pretty much knew what they'd do," Foster said of a Seattle defense that didn't have much success doing anything. "They stacked against the run a lot in the box, but we were finishing blocks enough to get the run going and that set up some pass plays."

Having scored once on 13 possessions a week ago, the Steelers got points four of the first six times they had the ball against a defense that wasn't remotely menacing save for the moment defensive end Raheem Brock crashed into Roethlisberger's right leg in the second quarter.

"I didn't feel anything pop so that was the good thing about it," the quarterback said. "Knees are nothing to play around with. It was definitely scary."

So that's on the record then, which means you can't say the Seahawks don't scare anybody. You can say they're perfectly awful though, which should keep the Steelers' first win in perspective.

Gene Collier: More articles by this author

Jury still out on 'old and slow'

By Mark Madden
The Beaver County Times
September 18, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 18: Tavaris Jackson #7 of the Seattle Seahawks is sacked by Steve McLendon(notes) #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on September 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Seahawks 24-0. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

After Baltimore administered a 35-7 mauling eight days ago, Warren Sapp of Showtime's "Inside the NFL" said the Steelers are "old, slow and it's over."

Outwardly, the Steelers reacted calmly. Inside, they had to be seething.

The Steelers are a proud team (read: touchy). That Sapp's criticism had a ring of truth had to sting even more.

Yesterday provided no answers. Seattle provided only token opposition. The game was contested with little rancor. Sapp's comments and Baltimore's butt-whipping will hang in the air a bit longer, perhaps until Oct. 30 when New England visits. As Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said, "It's not going to take one performance to take that stench off of us."

The Steelers' schedule provides both charity and frustration. It's so weak it nearly guarantees a wild-card at minimum, but it offers few true challenges and little opportunity for legitimate evaluation.

Are the Steelers old and slow? Indianapolis (0-2) with Kerry Collins at quarterback doesn't figure to press the issue.

Give Sapp credit. Ex-jocks who aren't afraid to offend the brotherhood - who understand they're media now, not players - last longer on television. Want proof? When was the last time you saw Jerome Bettis on national TV? Right or wrong, Sapp had us talking all week. He's interesting.

The Steelers' lone truly anxious moment came when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger absorbed a hit to the knee courtesy of Seattle's Raheem Brock. Rookie tackle Marcus Gilbert got beat on the play, appearing to leg-whip Brock into Roethlisberger. It was the low point of a shaky day for Gilbert, who spent much of his first NFL start flailing.

Roethlisberger missed two plays, giving Heinz Field the chance to muster a "Char-lie, Char-lie" chant for oncoming QB Batch. Maybe those were his creditors. Do the citizens understand that if Roethlisberger gets sidelined for a significant time, the season is over in ways beyond Sapp's opinion?

Then again, maybe not: Remember that schedule.

Receiver Hines Ward caught four passes. He was not covered by Sapp's 13-year-old daughter. Ward nonetheless seems to be laboring to get open. Perhaps Emmanuel Sanders - beloved by the coaches for his precise route-running - should start alongside Mike Wallace. Ward could jump into the slot, where his value would increase and his career might be lengthened.

But that will not be considered. If any player scares Tomlin, it's Ward. Ward lines up in the slot anyway when the Steelers use three or more receivers, so the debate is moot. There's no debating Wallace's impact: Eight catches for a second consecutive week.

Referee Bill Leavy, the man who ruined Super Bowl XL, was anonymous yesterday by virtue of the game's lopsided nature. When Roethlisberger came up just short of the end zone at the end of a first-quarter ramble, one couldn't help but think of the time that happened in Super Bowl XL - but Roethlisberger was awarded a touchdown anyway.

When Seattle got penalized, you could imagine Seahawks fans yelling, "He's cheating us again!" The officiating mattered in 2006. Not yesterday.

The Steelers won. Against subpar opponents, especially at home, it's all they can do. No agenda beyond. We'll see what Sapp has to say.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Highlights: Steelers 24, Seahawks 0

Ten years later, Heinz Field still a boon for Steelers

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The crowd, mostly young girls, screamed and squealed. So did many Steelers fans, for different reasons.

On the night of Aug. 18, 2001, *NSYNC took the stage at the 50-yard line and put on a show -- and Heinz Field was officially open for business. Meanwhile, a letter to the editor professing to speak for "thousands of people too outraged to put pen to paper" complained that the new stadium would be "defiled before it was consecrated."

The 65,000-seat North Shore facility survived the presumed sacrilege, and the anger passed. Justin Timberlake continued on his fateful journey to wardrobe malfunction and Super Bowl immortality. After a couple of exhibition games, the Steelers' home opener, pushed back to Oct. 7 by the Sept. 11 attacks, finally happened.

Jerome Bettis blessed the field with 153 rushing yards, the second-highest total of his 13-year career. The Steelers beat the Bengals, 16-7.

Looking back on the game 10 years later, Bettis said, "Not many times do you have the opportunity to open a new stadium. I opened it with a bang."

More than seven months earlier, the Steelers outfitted "The Bus" with a $6 million bonus and contract extension, launching a spending spree fueled by the move from Three Rivers Stadium.

"They definitely needed to have a new stadium," Bettis said. "And I believe I was the first recipient. In getting the stadium, they were able to keep me."

Several others profited, too, including Hines Ward, Casey Hampton and coach Bill Cowher. In all, a franchise known for its thrift paid a team record $30 million in signing bonuses. Director of football operations Kevin Colbert at the time called it "an indication that the organization probably has more positive cash flow than previously."

The Steelers were prepared for the next decade, when league-wide expenses, including salaries and bonuses, would skyrocket. During the contentious, often bitter fight over the funding of Heinz Field (and PNC Park), team president Art Rooney II repeatedly pushed the point that the club needed a new building to stay competitive.

Many argued (and still do) that the club was doing well enough to get by without taxpayer help. A ballot measure for funding was defeated before the Regional Asset District board -- not a public vote -- approved a measure to release tax funds. The outcry was significant.

Still, the record shows that the Steelers during their first 10 seasons in Heinz Field won at least 10 games seven times, made six playoff appearances and played in three Super Bowls, winning two. In the preceding 21 years at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers had six double-digit victory seasons, went to the playoffs 10 times and played in one Super Bowl. And lost.

While astute coaching and player evaluation probably best explain the recent success, the Steelers have had the financial brawn to back that up. Forbes magazine this year listed the franchise's value at $1.1 billion, 13th in the league.

"There's no doubt Heinz Field put us in a situation where we felt like we could be competitive with the other teams," said Rooney, whose family, which has owned the team since 1933, reportedly considered selling in 1994 and later threatened to move to Washington County. "It brought us into the next century, so to speak.

"Our system relies first and foremost on the draft. It's the foundation for what we hope will be success. One of the keys to that, hopefully, is you draft, and after that you need to keep those players. To keep players into their prime, you need to re-sign them to second and third contracts."

Rooney cited the NFL's "stadium boom" at the time, especially among AFC Central rivals Cincinnati, Cleveland and Baltimore. All got new stadiums between 1998 and 2000. "We were afraid of getting left behind," he said.

Pitt football also moved into Heinz Field in 2001 after leaving ancient Pitt Stadium, its on-campus home for 75 years, and spending a season at Three Rivers. The switch upset fans and alumni who preferred the old stadium be renovated, but athletic director Steve Pederson, who orchestrated the move, said Heinz Field has been an asset.

"During a decade when facilities in college athletics have become such an important component, having a tremendous stadium like Heinz Field has been significant for our program on all levels," he wrote in an email. "It would be hard to imagine a college program having a stadium with better amenities for fans than those at Heinz Field."

Pederson noted that "every student season-ticket sales record has been shattered" since the team moved to Heinz Field, and the school has set highs for overall season-ticket sales.

Heinz Field has been well-received by the critics for its design and amenities, but there were small gripes at first. The vivid color of the seats irked more than a few. "Steeler gold," Rooney has described it. "Mustard yellow," countered others.

There was the inevitable longing for the old place. Like other so-called "cookie cutter," multipurpose facilities, Three Rivers Stadium, which opened in 1970, became antiquated before its time. But it had its charms, like history. The Steelers forged a dynasty that won four Super Bowls there. And it was loud. Louder than the new place. Also, it literally shook.

After the opener, Cowher said, "It's just like going to a party where nobody knows each other. It is not as loud."

"(Heinz Field) was never gonna be as loud as Three Rivers because Three Rivers was enclosed," Bettis said. "And the stadium actually bounced. It made a sound I'll never forget. When it got rockin', it was super loud. Heinz has got that little open area. But I promise you this: There is nothing better than seeing those Terrible Towels. When they get to wavin', the place is electric."

Heinz Field cost about $281 million. The Rooneys originally put up $76.5 million (the total has since exceeded $100 million), but most of that was offset by the $57 million (over 20 years) from Heinz for the naming rights.

At Three Rivers, the Pirates basically ran the show, and the Steelers got just 10 to 15 percent of the revenue from 115 luxury suites. At Heinz, there are 129 suites, and the Steelers keep all of the money. Personal seat licenses further widened the revenue stream.

This year, Heinz Field hosted four major concerts, the most ever. The Steelers keep all of that money, too. Ticket prices this season average $74.32, 13th in the league and nearly equal to the league average.

Leaving Three Rivers for the last time "was an emotional day," Rooney said. "There were so many great memories. But you move on, and I'm certainly happy with the way things have turned out."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

L.C. Greenwood: 'He's being cheated'

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Twenty-nine years after retiring from professional football, L.C. Greenwood's time in the spotlight is again coming around.

The former Steelers defensive end turned 65 this month, and thousands of fans from his native Mississippi to Pittsburgh are mounting a campaign to get him elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Despite impressive statistics that include twice being named All-Pro and selected to six Pro Bowls as a member of the legendary Steel Curtain defense that helped the 1970s teams win six AFC Division Championships and four Super Bowls, Greenwood isn't enshrined in Canton, Ohio, despite seven nominations since 1991.

Though quarterback sacks were not yet an official statistic, Greenwood recorded 73.5 sacks during his 13-year career and recovered 14 fumbles. Knee injuries forced his retirement before the start of the 1982 season.

"I don't know what my career would have been without him," said former defensive tackle Joe Greene, inducted in 1987. "He should absolutely be in the Hall of Fame. Bottom line, he's being cheated."

Family and friends are circulating petitions and started a Facebook page -- -- to collect 10,000 signatures asking the Hall of Fame's seniors committee to put Greenwood on the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot.

The league won't comment on Greenwood or reasons for Hall of Fame choices, but popular sentiment is the selection committee bypassed Greenwood because so many Steelers are in the Hall, including nine of his teammates, owner Dan Rooney, team president Art Rooney II and former coach Chuck Noll.

"I've ... heard people say, 'What are we gonna do, build a wing out here for all the Steelers from back then?' " said former linebacker Jack Ham, inducted in1988. "I wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame without L.C. and the work he did on the field. The fact that he isn't in there, too, has everything to do with politics."

Greenwood of Point Breeze is reticent to talk about it. "I know I have the stats," he said. "It's unfortunate."

While playing ball, Greenwood built a business and today remains president and owner of Greenwood Enterprises, an electrical supply, coal, natural gas and construction company. "I knew enough not to count on football to support me forever," he said.

Longtime business partner Jim McDonald of Washington calls Greenwood "patient, humble, cautious and quiet."

"What you see is what you get when it comes to L.C.," McDonald said.

As a member of the team that ignited Steeler Nation, Greenwood with his 6-foot-7 frame became recognizable off the field for his flashy clothes and on it for his gold Nike shoes, which he wore to distinguish himself from Greene for announcers.

"The announcers would be saying 'Joe Greene on the tackle,' but I had made the tackle," he said. When an ankle injury forced Greenwood to play in high-top shoes, he and equipment manager Tony Parisi decided to paint them gold, and his signature style was born. Nike paid NFL fines against the Steelers of $100 a game when he wore the non-regulation shoes.

Rise to fame

Greenwood's involvement in football began in an unlikely way.

Growing up in rural Canton, Miss., the oldest of nine children, he picked cotton from late August to early December, earning $2.50 for every 100 pounds. His mother, a homemaker, and father, a factory foreman, "wanted us doing positive things," Greenwood said.

"My old man was working his behind off, and it was my responsibility as the oldest to contribute," he said. "I did any odd job I could find."

His sister Annie Greenwood of Knoxville, Tenn., remembers walking to Rogers High School with him.

"The school was a mile away, and my parents wanted us to walk together, but L.C. would set out just 10 minutes before we had to be there, and he'd go striding with those long legs and make it with time to spare," she said. "I could barely keep up, but he wasn't waiting for me."

Greenwood played basketball and football at Rogers, and his father told him to choose one sport.

"I picked football because it was physical," Greenwood said. "It was a way for me to get out my aggression. My folks would leave home and I was in charge, and all my brothers and sisters would plot against me, and I couldn't fight back ... so I took it out on people on the football field."

During this sophomore year, Greenwood's coach refused to give him a jersey or let him play because "he said I didn't have the heart for the game."

A new coach gave him a second chance. By his senior year, Greenwood was named all-state. Other players talked about him when they traveled to Jackson to play the title game. "I was just playing football because it was fun," he said. "To me, it was a means to an end. I never dreamed of being in the NFL or playing professionally."

Though he saved money for college tuition, Greenwood attended Arkansas AM&N on a football scholarship. He intended to become a vocational education teacher.

In 1969, his senior year, Greenwood performed drills for Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry. "He had me do a 40-yard dash, and he pulled out a stopwatch. I didn't even know what it was because I'd never seen one. He said I did really well. A month later the draft started, and my coach said I'd get picked up. I was shocked."

Dallas passed on Greenwood in the first round because a doctor said a knee injury would keep him from playing. The Steelers drafted him in the 10th round.

"They said Steelers and I said, 'Who?' All of a sudden I'm in the NFL, and to that point I had seen exactly one pro football game on television: The Cowboys vs. the Redskins," he said.

That first season, Pittsburgh paid Greenwood $13,500, the league minimum. He taught a class at Braddock High School in the offseason.

Fast and aggressive, Greenwood used his size to bat down balls and sack quarterbacks.

"He was like a greyhound," said Greene, now the Steelers' special assistant for player personnel. "He would just zoom right past everyone on the field."

On Monday mornings after games, late Steelers announcer Myron Cope brought the players Downtown for "dress-offs." The '70s teams were "the most fashionable team in the league," Greenwood said. One Monday, Greenwood showed up wearing blue tights and a cape, certain that no one would best him.

Running back John "Frenchy" Fuqua did, wearing platform shoes with clear heels that contained water and fish he plucked from his home aquarium.

"That team really liked to have fun, and they liked to make fun of each other," said Art Rooney II. "L.C. had his own style, and he was a real character. Everyone loved being around him."

His flash is preserved in the L.C. Greenwood jewelry collection he created with Lenny Shaw, owner of L.S. Jewelers in Robinson -- pieces with black, gold and white diamonds that sell for $3,000 to $50,000. The store keeps a Hall of Fame petition for customers to sign.

"People have been very receptive," Shaw said.

Greenwood often plays golf in charity outings, wearing custom-made gold shoes. Several days a week he attends services at Bethany Baptist Church in Homewood. His two grown children, Chelsea and Fernando, live in Atlanta.

"In my life, God is first. Then my kids, then work, then golf," he said with an easy laugh. "That's how I roll."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Penguins' Orpik exudes leadership in every way

Friday, September 16, 2011

Goals could be a problem early in the season or for as long as Sidney Crosby is out. Evgeni Malkin is back, better, stronger and, according to those who should know, determined to regain his status as a world-class player. James Neal has settled in. But where are the other goals going to come from?

The power play could be an issue again. There's really no need to mention how bad it was without Crosby and Malkin in the first-round playoff collapse against the Tampa Bay Lightning last spring. Why ruin your breakfast? Just say it ...

1 for 35.


But one thing the Penguins won't be lacking even with Crosby out is a strong presence in the room. The "C" belongs to Crosby for good reason; he's a terrific captain, the best player and hardest worker on the team. But he's not the only leader. It's Brooks Orpik's team, too.

That was important last season when Crosby missed the second half with his concussion problems. It's just as important this season with Crosby expected to miss at least the early games.

"I've kind of been aware of it for a while," Orpik said of his lofty place in the team hierarchy. "A lot of guys don't ask you a lot of questions, but they're watching how you approach things and how you handle yourself every day. They learn with their eyes and their ears. You have to always be aware of that."

Orpik gives teammates plenty to think about. It's no wonder they voted him their Players' Player award last season, their highest honor. "It's not a popularity contest by any means," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said at the time. "It's about respect. It's about being a professional."

Orpik works out like a madman. He is tough. He is physical. He will hit you and knock you into next week. He plays hurt. He blocks shots even if it means breaking a bone, as it did last season when he broke his right index finger blocking a shot by San Jose's Patrick Marleau. He kills penalties. He gets the puck out of his zone. He ...

Did I mention Orpik plays hurt?

After last season, just like after the 2009-10 season, he had surgery to repair a muscle tear in his lower abdomen. "They tell me if you get one side done, you're probably going to have to get the other side done at some point, too, because you tend to overcompensate," he said. Doctors use a piece of mesh to strengthen the damaged area. The rehab after the surgery is brutal. Of course, playing with the injury down the stretch the past two seasons was no day at the beach, either.

"I'm not 100 percent yet, but I'm close," Orpik said. "I'm right where I want to be at this point. I don't know if they're going to throw me into contact or games right away. They could, but there's probably no sense in that."

Orpik figures to be ready for the opener Oct. 6 at Vancouver even if he isn't full-go early in training camp, which begins Saturday. He said he can't wait to get started again. That collapse against the Lightning, remember? The Penguins -- playing without the injured Crosby and Malkin as well as without Matt Cooke (suspension) -- blew a three games-to-one lead in the series. They scored just four goals in the final three games and were beaten, 1-0, in Game 7 at home.

"We should have been in the second round," Orpik said. "You don't want it to consume you, but it really starts to sting as you watch the team that beat you keep moving on in the playoffs."

It seems all the Penguins are eager for the opening of camp. Every player was in town by Monday, Orpik said. Many have been skating together all week. I asked Orpik for his thoughts about three players in particular.

On Malkin: "He looks really good physically. You hate to say it, but maybe his [knee] injury was almost a blessing in disguise for him. It put things in perspective for him. He started to work out like he used to and really pushed himself. He looks a lot stronger. I don't know if it's because of his rehab or that he has a chip on his shoulder, but he seems really motivated this year."

On Neal, who came to the Penguins with defenseman Matt Niskanen at the trade deadline in February: "I think both of those guys are a lot more comfortable now that they've been with us for a while. I think they're going to be a lot better this season. You have to be comfortable off the ice to be comfortable on it."

And, of course, on Crosby: "I don't know; he looks good to us. He's been skating with us. It just seems like he has a lot more energy and is a lot more upbeat."

Orpik didn't predict when Crosby will be ready to play. No one knows when that will be.

Nor did Orpik have to promise to do his best to keep the team together until Crosby returns. That's just a given. He'll continue to be a great leader in his own way.

"From past experience, you can tell when guys try to do something extra," Orpik said. "It doesn't come across as natural. It comes across almost as a little fake. In my opinion, that's exactly what you shouldn't do. Guys stop paying attention to what you're doing and stop respecting you.

"Just be yourself. That should be good enough."

In Orpik's case, it's plenty good enough.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

Bill Mazeroski and the end of an era

Book review: 'Farewell to the Last Golden Era: The Yankees, The Pirates and the 1960 Baseball Season,' by Bill Morales. McFarland & Company, $29.95.

By John P. Rossi
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, September 04, 2011

The phrase "Golden Era" is thrown around a great deal by baseball writers with the 1920s and 1950s usually granted that title. Now Bill Morales stakes a claim to that designation with his new book about the 1960 season, one dear to Pirates fans.

As Mr. Morales notes, 1960 was the last year before expansion changed the face of Major League Baseball. There were 16 teams in the majors, the same number when the modern era of baseball began in 1901.

By analyzing developments in 1960, he traces how baseball was changed forever against the background of two great pennant races -- the Pirates drive for their first National title in 33 years and Yankees' manager Casey Stengel's last hurrah.

To give his story greater context, Mr. Morales, a history professor at Bergen Community College in New Jersey, weaves in the story of the Continental League, the last innovation of baseball's one true genius, Branch Rickey.

In 1959, Mr. Rickey, along with a group of business moguls, sought to challenge the monopoly of professional baseball by founding a third major league. They failed, but their challenge directly led to the expansion of majors in 1961 and '62 with the addition of the New York Mets, the Houston Colts (now Astros), the Los Angeles Angels and the new Washington Senators after the original Senators moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Mr. Morales also shows how baseball failed to adapt to new ideas and technologies such as television in contrast to professional football. The newly organized American Football League secured a lucrative financial deal with ABC by selling its games as a package. The new commissioner of the National Football League, Pete Rozelle, adopted the plan, launching professional football on its path to riches.

Sprinkled throughout this story of the 1960 season are some interesting insights about the state of baseball. Mr. Morales points out how the ethnic and racial nature of the game truly reflected the state of the nation in 1960. For example, Latin players did not want to be lumped with African-Americans, who in turn recognized the cultural gap that separated them from their Caribbean counterparts.

However, the heart of the book revolves around the two pennant chases that season. The Yankees, who had fallen to fourth place in 1959 after winning 10 pennants in 11 years, rebounded. Led by Roger Maris, whom they plucked from Kansas City, the Yankees ran away with the American League pennant.

For Pirate fans, 1960 was a dream season when a group of Pirate unknown scrappers led by Don Hoak, Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, Vern Law and Elroy Face came out of nowhere to cop a pennant.

Picked no better than fourth, they dispatched such powerful rivals as the Milwaukee Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, in the process turning Pittsburgh into a baseball-mad town. Unlike the Yankees, the Pirates started off fast but struggled toward the end of the season.

Mr. Morales concludes his book with a detailed analysis of the 1960 World Series. Behind Mazeroski's dramatic series-winning homer, the Pirates outlasted a superior Yankees team that outscored them 55 to 27. Perhaps Yogi Berra summed up what happened best: "We just got beat by the craziest team that ever played baseball."

John P. Rossi, professor emeritus of history at La Salle University, is the author of three baseball books.