Monday, October 31, 2011

With statement win, Steelers show critics they still haven't lost a step

By Don Banks
October 31, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Wes Welker(notes) #83 of the New England Patriots is tackled Troy Polamalu(notes) #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH -- At 2-2, coming off that humbling and ragged Week 4 loss in Houston, they looked old, slow and perhaps even insufficiently motivated. Now, not quite a month later, the Pittsburgh Steelers just look dangerous. Once again.

You know what is starting to get old? The notion that the Steelers might be getting old. How long have we been falling for that one now? Five years? Ten? Pittsburgh's demise, as it turns out, was once again prematurely reported, and greatly exaggerated.

"They do that every year, every year,'' said Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, after Pittsburgh held the ball for more than 39 minutes and led from start to finish in a convincing 25-17 defeat of New England on Sunday at Heinz Field. "When I was in college they were saying the Steelers are getting old, and this team is out of it. That's every year.

"But definitely, when you're the dominating team in the league, everybody is always trying to talk negative about you. But every year we seem to prove everybody wrong by going out there and getting wins and playing in the big games for another year.''

The rest of the AFC probably isn't going to want to hear this about the team that has represented the conference in three of the past six Super Bowls, but it's a pretty good bet there are more big games ahead for this year's Steelers. You can't say Pittsburgh is back when it never went away in the first place, but you can tell the Steelers are figuring things out again, and that's never a good development for the title dreams of 31 other NFL teams.

Pittsburgh's 6-2 record is suddenly the best in the conference, and the Steelers just dismantled a Patriots team that had owned them in the past decade and features the top-ranked offense in the league. Riding a four-game winning streak into their Week 9 showdown next Sunday night at home against Baltimore (5-2), the Steelers have that look again. The confident look of a champion who knows it has taken a punch, survived, and is starting to re-impose its will on opponents.

From near-crisis mode to familiar dominance in four short weeks. That's the road these Steelers just traveled. Pittsburgh sent a message with this win, and then made sure to underline its point in the postgame locker room.

"Everybody across the league, everybody on TV, everybody was counting us out, and pretty much saying these last couple of wins have been against teams we're supposed to beat,'' said Woodley, of Pittsburgh's recent victories over Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona. "They said we weren't going up against elite quarterbacks, and everything was negative toward the Pittsburgh Steelers. There was nothing positive coming out all week. Everything you heard was that [New England quarterback Tom] Brady owns the Steelers, he owns [defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau. It was all talk about their offense versus our defense. But no one said anything about our offense and the things they we're capable of doing.

"Everybody was looking at the past. You know, the past is the past. You have to look at the future and what's going on today. And that's what we went out there and displayed today.''

What the Steelers went out and displayed on Sunday was a determination that Pittsburgh's sorry recent past against New England would not matter on this day. The Patriots entered 6-2 against the Steelers in the Bill Belichick coaching era, winning four of their past five games at Heinz Field, including those dominant, Super Bowl-clinching performances in the 2001 and 2004 AFC title games. Brady was 6-1 against Pittsburgh in his career, and the weight of all that cumulative history resulted in the Steelers being established as a three-point home-field underdog, their largest such deficit in 10 years.

But the Steelers didn't adhere to the past and what it held in regards to this series, and nothing made that point clearer than Pittsburgh's brilliant and effective game plan. The Steelers determined they would largely set aside their power running game and the quick-strike, big-play passing game that had served them so well this season, and beat the Patriots at their own game. They would spread the Patriots out, throw underneath, exploit the middle of the field with tight end Heath Miller, and above all keep the clock moving with a possession passing game.

The results were spectacular: Roethlisberger completed 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns, with Pittsburgh controlling the ball for almost two-thirds of the game (39:22). In the first quarter, the Steelers ran 26 plays to the Patriots' three, rolling up 13:39 of possession time and outgaining New England 140-7. Pittsburgh held a 7-0 lead after the first quarter, made it 10-0 on the first play of the second quarter, and was never really threatened afterward.

In essence, the Steelers offense played superb defense, keeping the ball out of Brady's hands and limiting New England to 213 total yards, a mere 261.5 below its season average. The Steelers scored on five of their first seven possessions and didn't punt until the final 30 seconds of the game.

"It was paramount [to possess the ball],'' Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "They know that. We know that. We needed to control the ball and keep their offense off the field. We tried to control it with the pass a little bit. We were able to do that with Ben Roethlisberger. He threw some completions early, and that was necessary for us to be on schedule with the chains, like we were.''

The Steelers were on schedule and then some. Roethlisberger had 231 yards passing in the first half, and his 23 completions in 32 attempts in the first 30 minutes were both first-half career highs for him. Even though Pittsburgh has thrived on the home-run ball this season -- receiver Mike Wallace had a 95-yard touchdown catch just last week in a win at Arizona -- it was satisfied with hitting singles all night against New England, never once completing anything longer than 26 yards.

Try as it might, the Patriots' 32nd-ranked pass defense simply couldn't cover the Steelers receivers, and even though all the action was in front of the New England defensive backs, Pittsburgh kept killing them with the underneath stuff. Taking a page out of the Patriots playbook, Miller, the Steelers' Pro Bowl tight end, was Roethlisberger's most effective pass-catcher, exploiting the middle of the field for seven receptions and a team-high 85 yards.

"They gave us a lot of underneath stuff,'' Roethlisberger said. "We came in with a game plan of throwing the ball, and we did a good job of that. We came in planning to take some shots, too. You would have thought the game plan was just dink-and-dunk, dink-and-dunk, but that's what they gave us. They took away the deep ball.

"For us, taking away the deep ball, it opens up the underneath stuff. When you think about us possessing the ball, and keeping control, it's usually running the ball. But we kind of showed we can do it without always running the ball. We can take the short pass and the screen to the wide receiver, and we can move the ball. We can be as good as we want to be. When we don't kill ourselves and stop ourselves, we can be pretty dangerous.''

Without the burden of having to defend against Brady and the Patriots ultra-productive passing game for more than one-third of the game, the Steelers defense thrived as well on Sunday. Staying in more man coverage than anything else, Pittsburgh frustrated the Patriots, sacking Brady three times and holding New England to 170 net yards passing, less than half of the Patriots' season average in their first six games (350.5). Brady finished 24 of 35 for 198 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, but the Steelers defense finally cut him down to life-like size.

"I'm pretty sure some of our [young) guys have been watching TV and maybe reading some newspaper clippings about how the Patriots have had Pittsburgh's number for years, and they wanted to have an opportunity to change that around a little bit,'' Woodley said. "And they did that today. You always take it a little personal when no one's giving you credit, and when they say somebody owns you.''

The Steelers for now have settled their score with New England, and now they have one to settle with Baltimore, who embarrassed them 35-7 in Week 1 at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens enter next week's showdown in the familiar position of trailing Pittsburgh, a half-game behind the Steelers and tied for second place in the AFC North with surprising Cincinnati (5-2). After getting its shot at Baltimore, Pittsburgh travels to Cincinnati in Week 10, meaning the road to yet another division title is suddenly laid out quite nicely before the Steelers.

"Everybody's always saying what they say about us, but we just let them talk,'' Steelers receiver Mike Wallace said. "I will tell you one thing: Nobody on this team, nobody in this locker room, ever said we were getting old or hung their head. We just knew we had a bad game that day [in Houston]. People are going to have a bad game. But I mean, you have a bad game and people say you're getting old, you're getting slow? But we're going to let everybody talk about what they want to talk about. We're going to just come out and keep playing winning football.''

After all, as Sunday proved once again, that is what these Steelers still do best. In Pittsburgh, the big games and big wins never get old.

Offense comes full circle on cue

Monday, October 31, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers passes against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Tell me if the next sentence does not look vaguely familiar.

The Steelers now face a critical appointment against the Baltimore Ravens with all the bulging confidence inherent in their established status as an elite force within the AFC, evidenced principally by an array of offensive weapons at the command of one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.

In other words, we are all just about exactly where we were the week this football season started.

I thought so.

The clinical implosion of the New England Patriots, engineered Sunday by Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, fully catapulted the Steelers from the ditch the Ravens bullied them into in that bloody opener, but it did more than that.

"It showed we can come out with the best of them and throw," said Steelers wideout Mike Wallace. "We can do whatever we need to do to win a ballgame."

That's something on which the balance of power in the conference will now shift dramatically, because the Steelers staged a dazzling tactical seminar on how to withstand the blinding brilliance of Tom Brady, Wes Welker, et al.

Don't let them play.

Did you even see Tom Brady yesterday?

Only in fleeting glances, like three plays in the first quarter.

"If they have a long drive, our offense can't just go in there and do a three-and-out like we did," Brady said after losing in Pittsburgh for the first time in seven years. "We gotta do a better job than that. We made a lot of errors."

By fateful contrast, the Arians offense did not.

Passing on first down 10 of 11 times in the first quarter, Roethlisberger established that the Steelers had come to beat Brady by, off all things, out-Bradying Brady.

"We came in this week, and Bruce Arians just told us we were going to open up the offense," said Emmanuel Sanders, who caught five of Roethlisberger's season-high 50 passes, "and we did exactly what he said we were going to do.

"I like it. I love it."

Go 'head: He wants some more of it.

The deadly component for New England was that Roethlisberger's gun-slinging sacrificed nothing in the way of ball control. Rather, it enhanced it.

The Steelers scoring drives murdered the clock, lasting 5:54, 7:06, 5:39, 7:47, and 5:52. When Roethlisberger finally took a knee with 8 seconds remaining and a 25-17 final score calcifying on the Heinz Field boards, it meant the Steelers' offense had swallowed a phenomenal 39:22 of the 60 minutes.

"It was just about perfect," said quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner, "and the best part is, there are still plenty of things we can correct."

Sure you can correct the odd impulse that had Roethlisberger badly under throw Sanders with a ball Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton gladly picked off and returned 17 yards to the Steelers' 8, setting up the first of New England's two touchdowns.

And you can correct the equally enigmatic series in which Arians allowed the quarterback to turn a second-and-11 at the New England 28 with two minutes to play into a fourth-and-30 by running around in his own backfield with the game hanging out of his pocket.

But, after the Steelers took a purposeful delay-of-game penalty to make it fourth-and-35, and Daniel Sepulveda jogged onto the field with only 28 seconds to play, it was the first time the offense had to punt all day.

Other than Guyton's pick and a missed 44-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham with six minutes remaining, the Steelers were successful on every possession, right from the moment Roethlisberger nailed Mewelde Moore with a precise slant pass for a 5-yard touchdown on the game's first drive.

The Steelers have scored a touchdown on their first possession in four consecutive games.

"Those guys were playing us so deep," said Wallace, who induces that very strain of fear in defenses. "When they do that, why not take the quick hitch or the drag routes. We really executed today on the medium routes.

"We can do whatever we need to do to win a ballgame."

Add a depleted defense that has nonetheless held seven consecutive opponents to 20 points or fewer, and the Steelers look as complete and as dangerous as they have since, well, Sept. 11.

It is possible that all yesterday means is that they are ready for Baltimore, but it feels a little more portentous than just that.

"It means we beat a good football team," said Brett Keisel, who swatted the ball out of Brady's hands to trigger a safety on New England's last possession. "I'm just so proud of everybody especially on the defense where so many guys are stepping in and playing for starters and we're still able to play winning football.

"That's what makes a great team. Hopefully, we're on our way."

Gene Collier: More articles by this author

Steelers once again pack punch

Monday, October 31, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Tom Brady(notes) #12 of the New England Patriots is sacked by LaMarr Woodley(notes) #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on October 30, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Troy Polamalu had been the Steelers' voice of reason all through this muddled mess of a season. He was concerned but calm after the opening bomb in Baltimore, and he stayed just as measured after all those blah victories against bottom feeders.

Even after a decent effort in Arizona last week, the man was left wanting: "Time will tell."

Well, the alarm clock went off Sunday, and the Steelers answered the bell in a big way by beating New England up, down and all over Heinz Field, much worse than the 25-17 score.

They chased Tom Brady as if endorsement deals were hanging from his neck. They made Wes Welker eat grass within a millisecond of catching the football. They rode big tight end Rob Gronkowski like a bucking bronco. And they apparently caught defensive genius Bill Belichick wholly unprepared for, of all gimmicky schemes, the underneath routes of tight end Heath Miller.

The Steelers, finally, after eight games, are the Steelers again.

The playbook was fine, the individual execution maybe the best all season, but this was all about delivering a relentless series of punches to the mouth.

And enjoying it.

And feeding off it.

Know what that is?

"That's Steelers football, man," guard Ramon Foster said, fairly beaming. "We always want to go into the game and be physically better than the other team. We knew we'd have to be good fundamentally against the Patriots, and I feel like we were. From there ..."

From there came the punches.

Just ask nose tackle Casey Hampton, who burst through the New England line on the Patriots' first series and slammed BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a 1-yard loss. A big, early snack.

Or LaMarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood, for switching off, fooling and flattening the right edge of the Patriots' offensive line. Woodley stepped up, as he needed to in James Harrison's absence, and hunted down Brady for two sacks.

Or Foster and the rest of the Steelers' offensive line, for shoving forward and giving Ben Roethlisberger the kind of time and space Brady usually enjoys. Roethlisberger wasn't great, but his pocket was.

Or safety Ryan Clark, for bouncing New England's Kevin Faulk so hard off the Steelers' goal line he looked like a pinball. "Just wanted to get him going backward," Clark explained.

Or ask Polamalu, whose performance was visibly emotional during and after some breathtaking displays.

He downplayed his emotional reactions, which are rare: "It was an emotional game, that's all," he said. And he laughed off being that guy who rode Gronkowski for several yards: "I was on his back, and I'm like, 'What am I doing? Where am I?' " he recalled with a laugh.

For once, though, he didn't downplay his sentiment about these Steelers: He loved what we saw.

"You can't beat a good team without playing good football, and we played really good team football today," Polamalu said. "It's not about the offense putting up numbers. It's not about the defense getting off the field. It's all three phases working together. It's always been our formula for winning, and it always will be."

If that sounds like it's OK to believe again, well, have at it.

Half the regular season remains, as does the rematch with Baltimore on Sunday that many Steelers already were eagerly discussing. But this team is now 6-2, atop the AFC, and no one's calling them old, slow or done anymore.

That's especially true of the receiving corps, with so much promising youth injected in recent weeks. No one should envy Mike Tomlin's week ahead when he decides to sit Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders — either of which would be ridiculous — or tell the once-great Hines Ward that he's now fourth-string.

This isn't the time for celebrating the past. The Steelers are very much contenders again, very much in the picture to return to the Super Bowl.

And just in case anyone so much as toys with the notion of excessive tinkering in the days and weeks to come, someone should pin this quote from Brady yesterday to the locker-room wall: "They run a lot of the same stuff, week in and week out. I don't think we did a very good job handling it or adjusting to it or playing against it. ... We really didn't match their physical style."

Few teams can when the Steelers are being the Steelers.

Steelers spread their offensive wings

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
October 31, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Heath Miller(notes) #83 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs through tackles with the ball after catching a pass against the New England Patriots during the game on October 30, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The Steelers almost never beat New England. Not in this millennium, anyway.

So yesterday at Heinz Field, the Steelers turned into the Patriots. To great effect.

The Steelers came out executing their version of the Patriots' spread. Ben Roethlisberger threw 20 times on the Steelers' first two possessions, staking his team to a lead it would never lose.

Deep down, it must have hurt.

Not Roethlisberger. He's waited his whole career for a game plan like this. Not the Steelers' trio of great young receivers. Not tight end Heath Miller, who emerged from playbook-mandated oblivion to grab seven balls, including six on those first two drives.

I'm talking about the old guard. Steelers purists. To dance like Ali, not pound like Tyson -- despite the victory -- had to sting just a bit. That's OK. Have another beer.

Yesterday's victory should serve as a symbolic rebirth of the Steelers brand. The Steelers started the ‘70s as a defensive behemoth. They ended the decade as an offensive juggernaut. The same transition seems to be in play now.

That's how it should be. It's Roethlisberger's team.

Yesterday's triumph was not without trepidation. You don't usually beat the Patriots by bunching up field goals. Taking that route scripted anxious moments at game's end. The Steelers' red-zone inefficiency was ghastly and nearly costly.

Injuries mounted. Four starters were on the inactive list, including fresh additions Hines Ward and James Farrior. LaMarr Woodley left the game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury. I don't even know who No. 54 is -- and then he jumped offside.

At the death, desperate times called for unusual measures: After Brett Keisel stripped the football from Tom Brady, Troy Polamalu punched it into the end zone, where it rolled out for a safety. Roll over, Ken Stabler, and tell Dave Casper the news.

The catalyst was Roethlisberger. Ben knew it wasn't good to kick so many field goals. Did you see him on the sideline? I never saw anybody mourn three points before.

Roethlisberger was 36 for 50 for 365 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. His passer rating was 97.5. But beyond stats, Roethlisberger proved he was capable of assembling a ball-control offense via passing 71 percent of the time.

The Steelers had the ball for more than 39 minutes. Their scoring drives took 11, 16, 10, 14 and 11 plays. Brady took three snaps in the first quarter.

The Steelers' defense used a lot of tight man-to-man coverage that was particularly effective early. The Patriots' first possession in each half resulted in a three-and-out. That provided the Steelers important momentum.

The Steelers frustrated New England the same way the Patriots had frustrated them so many times before. It's only a regular-season game, but a weight has been lifted. Should a rematch arise, the Patriots won't seem so imposing in the playoffs.

Speaking of rematches...

Next Sunday, Baltimore visits Heinz Field. Last time these teams met was 9/11 at Baltimore. The Steelers stood toe-to-toe with the Ravens and got knocked out, 35-7. That game was not nearly as close as the score indicated.

Should the Steelers slug like Tyson, or dance like Ali?

With a quarterback like Roethlisberger and pass-catchers like Miller, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace, I would think the answer is obvious. If there's any doubt, just check yesterday's game tape.

Highlights: Steelers 25, Patriots 17

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Steelers-Pats always signficant

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Casey Hampton isn't sure whether the Steelers' recent history against the New England Patriots constitutes a "rivalry," but he knows this much: It's never a small game.

"If you need fuel for the fire to play these guys," Hampton says, "you shouldn't play."

Rivalry or not, be sure that when these decorated franchises collide, the game is fraught with meaning -- sometimes obvious (winner goes to Super Bowl), sometimes not (loser makes necessary changes, goes to Super Bowl).

Yes, somebody usually goes to the Super Bowl.

Dating to Tom Brady's first year as New England's quarterback in 2001, the Patriots and Steelers have squared off in seven seasons. One has advanced to the Super Bowl six times. I'd say the odds are pretty good it'll happen again.

And whether anyone admits as much, the teams don't particularly like each other. Consider five classic quotes:

5. "Usually, where there is smoke, there's fire. Those rumors are founded on something, so it is not totally shocking, no." Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, when "Spygate" broke in 2007.

4. "We've played against a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you." Patriots coach Bill Belichick, after his team humiliated the Steelers and safety Anthony Smith (who had guaranteed a win) in '07.

3. "I don't care what Coach Belichick has to say regarding our performance." Tomlin, in response to Belichick ripping Smith.

2. "@#$%&@#$&!!!" or whatever Brady yelled to Steelers fans after his full-windup touchdown spike last season.

1. "We were the best team in football in 2004, but the Patriots, who we beat during the regular season, stole our signals and picked up 90 percent of our blitzes (in AFC title game)." James Harrison, to Men's Journal last summer.

One way or another, today's game is likely to have sizeable implications. We just might not realize them until late winter.

Last year's blowout loss to the Patriots, for example, appeared to identify the Steelers as an AFC pretender but instead propelled them toward a conference title.

Tomlin made wholesale changes within hours of the loss, firing kicker Jeff Reed, shuffling his offensive line and committing to the unusual move of putting his team in pads for a Wednesday practice. The Steelers won eight of nine en route to Super Bowl XLV.

With all that in mind, a look at Steelers-Patriots since '01:

• 2001 AFC Championship, Heinz Field: Patriots, 24-17.

At stake: Bill Cowher's reputation.

Images: Besides Troy Brown running all over the place? How about the Patriots' victory stand sitting in the middle of Heinz Field, and owner Bob Kraft saying, "I'd like to thank the Rooney family and the Steelers for treating us so well." He meant it as a compliment.

Upshot: Start of Patriots dynasty and, yes, three Super Bowl wins in four years qualifies as one.

• 2002 season opener, Gillette Stadium: Patriots, 30-14.

At stake: Patriots' reputation after what some labeled a fluky Super Bowl run.

Images: Stadium opening with pomp, pageantry and Brady carving the Steelers like a Thanksgiving turkey. At one point, he attempted 25 straight passes.

Upshot: Brady providing perhaps the only blueprint on how to torture the Steelers by spreading them out and forcing them to cover.

• 2004 regular season, Heinz Field: Steelers, 34-20.

At stake: Patriots' NFL-record 18-game regular-season winning streak.

Images: Steelers executing aggressive offensive plan they'd be wise to emulate today. They scored 21 first-quarter points then bludgeoned Pats late, running off final 6:27 on seven runs, a pass and three kneel-downs.

Upshot: Belichick would not forget those final minutes, pounding the image into his team's psyche for title-game rematch. ... Oh yes, and the Patriots broke NFL rules by taping the Steelers' defensive signals. Did they use the information to their advantage in the rematch? We might never know.

• 2004 AFC Championship, Heinz Field: Patriots, 41-27.

At stake: Trip to Super Bowl.

Images: Jerome Bettis stopped on early fourth-and-1. ... There goes Rodney Harrison. ... Deion Branch taunting Steelers on late score.

Upshot: Pats won it all, but I'll always remember Ben Roethlisberger's resilience. Most rookies would have crumbled after such a first-half calamity. He led a stirring comeback instead and had a chance to cut the lead to seven early in the fourth, only to see Cowher kick a buzz-killing field goal on fourth-and-goal. Strange as it might sound, this game proved Roethlisberger's mental toughness.

• 2005 regular season, Heinz Field: Patriots, 23-20.

At stake: Steelers' 16-game regular-season winning streak.

Images: Roethlisberger and Brady trading late drives. ... Brady completing final 12 passes.

Upshot: Probably should have played again in AFC Championship, but Patriots slipped up in Denver.

• 2007 regular season, Gillette Stadium: Patriots. 34-13.

At stake: Anthony Smith's guarantee, Patriots' 12-0 record.

Images: Smith getting roasted like a rotisserie chicken. ... Randy Moss completing a pass.

Upshot: Smith never recovered. Patriots didn't lose until Super Bowl.

• 2008 regular season, Gillette Stadium: Steelers, 33-10.

At stake: As it turned out, a playoff spot for Pats.

Images: Matt Cassel instead of Brady. ... Lots of rain. ... Lots of Lawrence Timmons. ... Ryan Clark nearly breaking Wes Welker in half.

Upshot: Key win for Super Bowl-bound Steelers; monumental loss for Pats, who missed playoffs and No. 2 seed by a game.

• 2010 regular season, Heinz Field: Patriots, 39-26.

At stake: As it turned out, Jeff Reed's job.

Images: Hines Ward unsuccessfully demanding re-entry after head injury (and seeing streak of 186 straight games with a catch snapped). ... Brady's spike. ... Reed unleashing stream of excuses after missing 26-yard field goal.

Upshot: Steelers shamed into competence.

• 2011 regular season, Heinz Field: To be determined.

At stake: TBD, possibly No. 1 seed in AFC playoffs.

Prediction: Gisele Bundchen's husband, as always, patiently takes what Steelers give him and rolls up 30 points only to be outdone by Roethlisberger and his young receivers, who put up 34. Oh, and one of the two winds up in the Super Bowl.

Highlights: Maple Leafs 4, Penguins 3

Friday, October 28, 2011

Highlights: Penguins 3, Islanders 2 (SO)

Are Steelers too stubborn to learn from mistakes?

By Jason Cole,

This is a story about evolution and exploitation.

Can the Pittsburgh Steelers’ great 3-4 defense evolve to avoid being exploited by the likes of Tom Brady(notes) and other high-profile quarterbacks who have picked the Steelers apart since 2006? That’s the theme Sunday when New England visits Pittsburgh. This is the only game the Steelers have during the regular season against a quarterback who can run the four-wide formation with stunning efficiency.

These are the two most dominant franchises in the NFL over the past decade. They have combined to represent the AFC in seven of the past 10 Super Bowls, winning five. History is nice, but it ignores one significant issue for Pittsburgh: If the Steelers don’t figure out a way to handle the constant spread-formation offenses they face against really good quarterbacks like Brady, Aaron Rodgers(notes) and Drew Brees(notes), their chances of winning another Super Bowl could become extinct.

As noted by Yahoo! Sports before the last Super Bowl, Brady, Rodgers and Brees have lit up the Steelers over the past five seasons. That point was galvanized in a 31-25 loss to the Packers and Rodgers in the title game. Rodgers completed 24 of 39 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns on the way to being named the game’s MVP.

Pittsburgh players and coaches counter that by saying it took a couple of superhuman throws by Rodgers to secure that win. If Rodgers didn’t hit one of two clutch tosses in traffic to Greg Jennings(notes), the game likely would have turned out differently, the argument goes.

That point ignores the bigger picture. Since 2006, the Steelers are 3-6 in games against Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Peyton Manning(notes), Eli Manning(notes) and Kurt Warner(notes). Moreover, they have allowed 30 points or more in five of those nine games and at least 20 in all of them. Those quarterbacks have combined for a stunning 106.3 rating (248 completions on 382 attempts, 2,955 yards, 23 touchdown passes and only two interceptions).

Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh’s Hall of Fame defensive coordinator, was unfazed by those numbers. As he talked about it in August during training camp at St. Vincent’s College, he seemed more perturbed by the afternoon rain.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a substantial change in how we do things,” LeBeau said, a light smile opening across his face. “Those quarterbacks have hurt a lot of people. That’s why they are so good … I don’t really worry about a lot of the numbers. I only worry about how many points they score and whether we have more than they do by the end of the game.”

Likewise, safety Troy Polamalu(notes) explained succinctly why it’s unlikely for the Steelers to substantially change what they do.

“We’re not built to sit back in coverage and wait for the quarterback to decide,” Polamalu said. “What we do is force the quarterback to decide faster.” He then shrugged his shoulders slightly and said, “We either get there before he gets rid of it or we don’t.”

Mostly, the Steelers haven’t been winning that race, particularly against Brady. In the aforementioned nine games, the Steelers have only 11 sacks. In the two against Brady, they have zero as he has picked the Steelers apart. Brady has completed 62 of 89 passes for 749 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in two games against Pittsburgh since 2007, when the Patriots started using more four-receiver formations as the base of their offense. New England has won those two games by an average of 17 points.

The game last year wasn’t as close as the 39-26 score indicated. Pittsburgh was down 23-3 going into the fourth quarter. Brady finished with three touchdown passes, all to tight end Rob Gronkowski(notes), and scrambled for another.
“What the Steelers have always done is try to make the quarterback think faster than he’s used to and force a mistake,” an NFC offensive assistant coach said. “It’s really as simple as that. Now, the way they do it is complicated. They’re erratic by intention. But if you have a quarterback who can think faster than they can, who can recognize the holes in the defense, you can get to them because they’re not going to sit back in a bunch of umbrella zones and rush two people.

“It’s just not who they are.”

At least it hasn’t been who the Steelers have been to this point. One might think that nine straight games of getting torched might cause the Steelers to rethink their approach at least slightly.

Certainly, other teams have taken different approaches against Brady. Last year in the AFC playoffs, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and his players baffled Brady by dropping into coverage much more than going after him. While the Jets eventually got five sacks and one interception, it was largely because Brady was forced to hesitate so much, not because the Jets got to him so quickly.

Over the past two games, Ryan and his brother Rob, who is the defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys, have done that again. While both the Jets and the Cowboys lost, they sacked Brady a total of seven times, intercepted him three times and held the high-scoring Patriots to their two lowest-scoring games of the season. In fact, it took a last-minute drive by Brady to beat Dallas.
When you throw in the fact that both of the Ryans run primarily 3-4 defenses, you have to wonder if the Steelers might finally take a hint and do a little more coverage.

LeBeau just smiles at the thought.

“We’ve been pretty successful around here for a long time with the way we do it,” LeBeau said.

Vulnerable defense
Over the past six seasons, the Steelers have played nine games against quarterbacks who have led their team to a Super Bowl during that same stretch. Here are the results of those games.
2010 Aaron Rodgers 304303W 31-25
2010 Tom Brady 350300W 39-26
2010Drew Brees 305212W 20-10
2009Aaron Rodgers383301L 37-36
2008 Kurt Warner 377312L 27-23
2008Eli Manning 199100W 21-14
2008Peyton Manning 240302W 24-20
2007Tom Brady 399400W 34-13
2006 Drew Brees 398101L 38-31

Note: Excluded is Kurt Warner’s game against the Steelers in 2007, when he entered the contest as a backup.

These three can bury Brady

Friday, October 28, 2011

HOUSTON - OCTOBER 02: Tight-end Owen Daniels(notes) #81 of the Houston Texans is tackled by linebacker Larry Foote(notes) #50 and linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes) #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter at Reliant Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

All kinds of Xs and Os will be dissected leading up to the Steelers' self-styled "five-star matchup" with the New England Patriots. To me, this is all as simple as Bill Belichick's wardrobe: Get to Tom Brady.

Get to him physically, get to him mentally, but get to him.

Yeah, I know, it's infinitely easier said than done. There's a reason the Patriots are 5-1 and have scored 30 or more points in five of those games. As defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau laid bare after practice Thursday on the South Side, "Ain't anybody figured that out too well." There's also a reason Brady owns the Steelers to such an extent that he might as well be a Rooney, with a 6-1 career record, 2,008 yards and 14 touchdowns.

But stopping Brady has been done, and it can be done again.

I'll put the unsolicited onus on these three Steelers to see it through:

LaMarr Woodley

His performance has risen from suspect to sensational over the past three games, in which he has 5 1/2 sacks, an interception and a forced safety. That's why the Steelers invested that $61.5 million. He's an impact player making impact plays.

There's no reason that shouldn't continue Sunday.

It's rare to get close enough to Brady to jab him with a stick, never mind wrapping him up. He's been sacked just 11 times in 237 passing plays, mostly because of that lightning-bolt release. As Woodley told me, "When somebody's getting rid of the ball like that, I don't care what you do, you're not getting back there in half a second."

He's right, of course. But the Steelers don't have another option with James Harrison out and Lawrence Timmons likely focused on covering New England's twin-tower tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Woodley must at least get his quarterback hurries, let Brady know he's there -- Woodley has nine official hurries this season -- and he'll have to be sound when dropping into coverage.

The man has complained -- rightly, to an extent -- that people "expect me to be a superhero after that contract and have sacks every game." This is a golden chance to prove he can be a force with or without sacks.

It can be done.

Ike Taylor

If you think Taylor had a lousy game last week against Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, you'd better bolster your argument with more than his three penalties and a couple missed tackles. Taylor was targeted nine times -- more than anyone in the Steelers' secondary -- and allowed just three catches and 15 total yards after those catches.

That's not bad, especially considering the competition.

His challenge this week will be far different but no less formidable in Wes Welker, who leads the NFL with 51 catches, plus 392 yards after the catch. On top of that, Welker lines up in the slot, so Taylor would have to move inside with him. Taylor did some of that last week against Fitzgerald but not exclusively.

"I'll play whatever, inside, outside, I don't care," Taylor said with a shrug. "New week, new challenge."

Taylor is eager to keep showing he is among the NFL's best cover corners and, even though he's still without an interception, he has allowed just two catches per game while stalking some top talent.

If he limits Welker like that, it will be because he pounds him early and often.

It can be done.

Troy Polamalu

The defensive back who is struggling the most in coverage is the one least often cited for criticism. Troy Polamalu has been targeted 22 times this season, and 12 of those passes were completed. He has no interceptions, one sack and six official passes defensed.

If that's Superman, he'd better check his cape for Kryptonite.

Polamalu remains effective in stunts, but New England won't allow much of that, given the need to track Gronkowski and Hernandez.

"I think everyone knows what we're facing: a very high-potent offense," Polamalu said.

Polamalu vs. any tight end would figure to be a mismatch. But he was beaten by Baltimore's Ed Dickson for a touchdown in the season opener, and he was beaten even worse by Arizona's Rob Housler last week. Only Kevin Kolb's abysmally off-line throw kept the play from going for six.

But again, it can be done: When Buffalo picked off Brady four times Sept. 25, in New England's lone loss, two were by safeties George Wilson and Bryan Scott while covering the Patriots' tight ends. Wilson and Scott were otherwise highly effective in coverage.

Polamalu doesn't have to be Superman this weekend. Just be like Ike.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steelers' Aaron Smith one of the greats, on field and in life

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

If you cover sports for a long time, you build up an impressive list of favorites, great, wonderful people whom you are thankful to know or have known. I think of Art Rooney, Sr. and Jr., Mel Blount and Jack Ham. Jerome Bettis, James Farrior, Larry Foote and Hines Ward. Herb Brooks, Brooks Orpik and Mike Rupp. Jim Leyland, Chuck Tanner and Carl Barger. Johnny Majors and Joe Paterno.

But I'm not sure I wouldn't rank Aaron Smith No. 1, all time.

"If I could be like him and live my life like he lives his, I'd die a happy man," Steelers teammate Brett Keisel once said of Smith.

I reminded Keisel of that comment after the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, a day after news broke that the team had placed Smith on injured reserve because of a neck injury, ending his season and his superb career.

"I meant it then and I mean it now," Keisel said. "He is everything to me. It's hard for me to put it into words."

Keisel really didn't have to say more.

That he had to reach into his locker for a towel to wipe his eyes said it all.

I'm guessing a lot of other Steelers felt like crying when they heard that Smith was done at 35 after 12 1/2 NFL seasons. Team neurosurgeon Joe Maroon examined Smith and couldn't promise him that he wouldn't have a catastrophic neck injury if he played again. Instead, Smith will have surgery that will allow him to continue to lead a normal life.

This is three consecutive seasons and the fourth time in five years that a major injury ended Smith's season.

"When you play as hard as he does and you compete like he does, these things happen," Keisel said. "I don't think [the neck injury] was the result of any one play. I think it was just wear and tear. His body just wore out."

That thought didn't make it any easier for Smith's teammates to accept that he won't be playing with them again.

"His locker is right next to mine," said Farrior, the Steelers defensive captain and, at 36, their oldest player.

"I know how hard he worked and the struggles he went through to come back from his [torn triceps] injury last season. He really wanted to have a great year. It [stinks] how he's going out."

Smith was a great player, one of the best in Steelers history. Certainly, he was their best 3-4 defensive end.

"An awesome player," Farrior called Smith.

"He never got dogged by the coaches or dominated by an opponent," said Foote, a veteran linebacker. "All of us get yelled at by the coaches and laughed at by our teammates for doing something stupid on the field. Not Aaron. Never once can I remember leaving the film room saying, 'That play was Aaron's fault.' He never was out of position. He never made mistakes."

Here's the best part about Smith:

He is a better man than player.

I saw it after Smith's son, Elijah, then 4, was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2008. Smith is a private guy, generally avoided the spotlight his entire career and didn't respond to repeated telephone requests to talk about this latest injury. But he agreed to go public with Elijah's story when he realized it could help others. I sat with him for a couple of hours at the South Side compound and listened as he bared his soul. It was my most memorable interview. ("Since October, pain has had new definition for family of Aaron Smith (12/14/08)")

What parent couldn't relate to Smith's pain?

"I swear at that moment I wanted to vomit on the floor. I didn't know anything about leukemia. I just know it was something bad. It was a death sentence as far as I knew."

An entire region was touched.

That December, the Steelers held a record-setting blood drive at Heinz Field that was inspired by Elijah's illness.

"What an awesome city!" Smith gushed in response. "This is a city that takes care of its own."

The Steelers beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII after the 2008 season and Elijah was in Tampa, Fla., to see the game. Today, he's doing well, a happy 7-year-old, the second-oldest of Smith's five children.

You think Smith is going to fret too much about the end of his career?

I mean, really?

"He's handling it the same way he handles everything," Keisel said. "He saw me after we found out and said to me, 'Listen, bro, I don't want any pity parties.' I told him, 'I'm not worried about you, Aaron. I'm worried about me and the team. What are we going to do without you?' "

The Steelers will carry on. They don't have a choice. They are 5-2 and must get ready for a big home game Sunday against the New England Patriots. The Baltimore Ravens come to town the following Sunday.

Life goes on in the NFL, no matter what.

"That's just the way this game is," Keisel said.

He, Farrior, Foote and the other 30-something players know their time is coming. Smith's injury made them painfully aware of their football mortality. None liked that feeling.

"It hits you hard," Foote said. "First, Jerome [Bettis] left. Then, Joey [Porter]. Now, Aaron. Every one of us knows we're going to have to cross that bridge one day. You don't like to think about it, but it's always in your mind."

As Farrior put it, "We're all on deck."

The 30-somethings should be so lucky to face the end of their career with Smith's strength and class.

They should be so lucky to be so well-remembered.

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, October 24, 2011

Wallace speeds up his greatness

Monday, October 24, 2011

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23: Wide receiver Mike Wallace(notes) #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs past safety Rashad Johnson(notes) #49 of the Arizona Cardinals on his way to score a 95 yard touchdown during their game at University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Shame on Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton. He coached the Steelers secondary the past two seasons and saw Mike Wallace every day in practice. He knows how fast Wallace can run.

Extra shame on Cardinals assistant coach Deshea Townsend, who works with the defensive backs. He played 12 seasons with the Steelers and went against Wallace in practice when Wallace was a rookie in 2009. He has experienced just how fast Wallace can run.

"He told me his guys have speed, too," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said, grinning, recalling his conversation last week with Townsend, who remains a close friend.

"I guess they aren't fast enough."

Cornerback Richard Marshall isn't. Cardinals rookie corner Patrick Peterson shadowed Wallace during most of the Steelers' 32-20 win Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium and did a great job, holding him to two catches for 23 yards. But, for some, strange reason that Horton and Townsend surely will regret, Marshall had Wallace on a first-and-15 play from the Steelers' 5 midway through the second quarter. He and the Cardinals quickly were doomed.

"I saw [Marshall] jump outside and let me get inside," Wallace said. "Then, I saw they didn't have a safety in the middle of the field. That's all she wrote."

Wallace blew by Marshall and caught quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's pass at the Steelers' 40. Safety Rashad Johnson tried to catch him, but he had no chance. He isn't as fast as Wallace, either.

"It was game over," Roethlisberger said.

Here's the first of two amazing things:

Wallace has a sore hamstring and was limited in practice last week.

And the second amazing thing:

Horton and Townsend really did warn their defensive backs about Wallace and he still beat them for a 95-yard touchdown, the longest passing play in Steelers history.

We're talking unbelievable speed.

"Freakish speed," Ward said. "Mike has the qualities of a Randy Moss. He's a special kid. He's a freak show out there."

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin compared Wallace to another NFL great, Chicago Bears return man Devin Hester. Teams keep kicking to Hester. He keeps bringing 'em back for touchdowns. Opponents know Wallace can hurt them deep. He keeps doing it. This latest big play gave him a catch of at least 40 yards in a sixth consecutive game, the longest such streak in the league since 2000. It was his franchise-record 11th touchdown pass of 40 yards or longer from Roethlisberger.

How does this keep happening?

"They see me on tape and they think it's a game," Wallace said. "But it's real out there."

Oh, it's real, all right.

It showed up on the scoreboard.

The touchdown gave the Steelers a 14-0 lead.

Deflating for the Cardinals?

"I would hope so," Wallace said.

Deflating, indeed, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt admitted.

"Obviously, you can't give up a 95-yard touchdown ball when you have the field position. We did everything we could to work to prevent that."

Still, Wallace won.

"He's a freak show out there ... "

A lot of NFL people and observers have noticed. They are starting to mention Wallace's name among the game's greats. One insider ranked him as the NFL's most dangerous receiver last week, ahead of such talents as Detroit's Calvin Johnson, Houston's Andre Johnson, Atlanta's Roddy White and Cardinals great Larry Fitzgerald, who had four catches Sunday for 78 yards.

"They should, they should [be talking about me]," Wallace said. "I make plays ...

"It's great to see people recognize what I do. It's nice to get some love. But, at the same time, that's something that you never want to buy into. I just want to keep working, keep grinding. Then, hopefully one day, they will say I am the best."

That day is coming fast.

Of course, it's coming fast.

With Wallace, how else would it come?

Ron Cook: 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

Steelers aim to do it for Aaron

Monday, October 24, 2011

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23: Aaron Smith(notes) #91, Cameron Heyward(notes) #97, Chris Hoke(notes) #76, James Farrior(notes) #51, and Casey Hampton(notes) #98 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sit on the bench during their game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was Saturday morning when the Steelers' players got word that Aaron Smith, one of the NFL's great defensive ends and a franchise fixture, was placed on injured reserve because of a neck injury. His season was done. Probably his career, too.

Brett Keisel, Smith's bookend these past few years, recalled a group of defensive players sitting with Smith in Pittsburgh soon afterward. They discussed Smith's injury, his future, his feelings about the franchise ... followed by a long silence.

Keisel broke it: "Are you going to come with us?"

For the game Sunday, he meant.

Smith smiled and replied: "Well, what else am I going to do? Am I going to sit around and mope? No, I'm coming."

The players exalted. And I got the distinct feeling that emotion carried into the Steelers' 32-20 throttling of the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Smith was on the team plane, in the locker room before the game and on the sideline throughout, offering advice, patting rumps, chipping in any way that a guy with a bad neck could.

Smith's neck — which coach Mike Tomlin revealed yesterday had hurt him for weeks — is now so painful it will require surgery. That made the decision for the team and the player unavoidable.

But the story won't end there: Keisel and several other players said yesterday they plan to dedicate the 2011 season to Smith.

"He's one of the greatest Steelers to ever put on a uniform," Keisel said. "There aren't a lot of guys who have played and battled like he has. Everyone looks up to that. We love him. We respect him. The least we can do is go out and win games for him."

This made for a fine start. Yeah, Arizona made absurd plays and decisions befitting a 1-5 team. It's going to be a ton tougher with New England and Baltimore next on the schedule. But Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers performed at their highest level all season, LaMarr Woodley is back to being a full-time beast, and the team is now 5-2.

The defensive line was fine, too.

When the Steelers took the field in the nickel formation that has only two down linemen, it looked like a tribute to Smith. It wasn't, of course. It was aimed at spelling third-string nose tackle Steve McLendon — Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke were out again — and it worked well. McLendon held up well, while Keisel and Ziggy Hood helped hold Arizona to just 73 rushing yards.

Smith plans to address the media later this week, and I'm guessing he'll say he loved it all.

In the broader scope, it's not easy to quantify Smith's value.

On the field, he was so hard to keep out of the backfield that he often drew two blockers, freeing up linebackers for the sacks and the glory. He was so difficult to run against that most opponents went the other way. Incredibly, he made only one Pro Bowl appearance, even as he was selected for Sports Illustrated's All-Decade team for the 2000s.

Off the field, Smith has been a leader through word and deed. Teammates know of his torment and resolve in helping his young son Elijah battle leukemia. They saw him compete through excruciating pain. Over the past four years, they saw him rehabilitating relentlessly, usually in vain.

"A guy like that," safety Ryan Clark said, shaking his head, "should have a better ending, you know?"

The players sounded mixed as to whether Smith might return in 2012, maybe out of a willful naivete. Keisel said he didn't know. Clark said, "He's probably not going to play again."

I hope he doesn't. Smith is 35. He's had so many injuries, and — as we all could see even as we wanted to look away — he wasn't himself on the field this season.

After an especially tough game in Indianapolis last month, Smith looked at me and said quietly, "I'm tired."

I believed it.

As Clark said, the man deserves better.

If Smith sticks around, if he comes on the occasional trip like this, if he walks the sideline, if he pokes his head into defensive line meetings, the Steelers will be the stronger for it.

But it won't be the same. That was easy to see on the sideline late in the game yesterday, when Clark lay his forehead on Smith's left shoulder and told him, "I'm going to miss you, man."

When I asked Clark to explain that, his eyes welled.

"He's a guy you root for, but he's a guy we love."

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23: Wide receiver Antonio Brown(notes) #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers makes a one handed catch on a 13 yard reception against the Arizona Cardinals during the third quarter of the NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Steelers defeated the Cardinals 32-20. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Game balls

» Ben Roethlisberger, QB: Who needs no-huddle? Completed 24 of 38 passes for 349 yards, three TDs and no picks, spreading ball to eight receivers.

» LaMarr Woodley, LB: Two more sacks, big-time run stuffing and a hard rush to produce Steelers' first safety since 2008. The man is all the way back.

» Antonio Brown, WR: Seven catches and 102 yards both career highs. Accounted for 215 all-purpose yards, including 113 in returns. Always a threat.

High;ights: Steelers 32, Cardinals 20

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed Changed NFL Defenses

Examining the impact of two dynamic safeties

By Chris Brown

Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu seem to have supernatural powers — they're everywhere on the football field at once, omnipresent demigods determined to knock your chinstrap off. Their range of skills is remarkable: total tackles, interceptions (Reed led the NFL in picks in 2010 despite playing only 10 games), and even sacks (Polamalu owns the record for most sacks by a safety in an NFL game, with three). They play slightly different positions — Reed is a free safety and Polamalu is a strong safety — but that distinction means little to opposing coaches and quarterbacks. To them, Reed and Polamalu are men of mayhem, hungry for prey. Their success is a credit to their talent and work ethic, but also the result of defensive strategies that have helped them make their marks.

Football defenses have been reacting to offenses for more than a century, and there is very little in today's game that wasn't around 50 years ago. Indeed, almost all modern NFL defenses are indebted to the 4-3 defense — referring to four defensive linemen and three linebackers — that Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry invented while serving as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in the 1950s.1 This pro-style 4-3 defense continues to evolve — along with its cousin, the 3-4 — but Landry's basic scheme of a dynamic seven-man front supported by four flexible secondary players remains to this day.

For the sake of brevity, allow me to oversimplify some history and jump forward a few decades from the inception of Landry's 4-3: By the mid-1980s, offenses had gained an upper hand on the formation. Defenses struggled to simultaneously deal with power football — that of fullbacks, tight ends, and pulling linemen — and increasingly efficient passing offenses like the one designed by the San Francisco 49ers' Bill Walsh. The best-known (and, for a time, the most effective) response to these developments was the "46" defense implemented by Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. The theory behind the 46 was that offenses seized the advantage because defenses let them dictate terms. For 30 years, defenses more or less tried to match and mirror offenses based on personnel and alignment, but they couldn't keep up. Ryan planned to negate this advantage by force — the 46's simple guiding principle was to kick ass.

The 1985 Bears, using Ryan's 46 in increasing doses throughout the season, fielded what may have been the greatest defense in NFL history en route to a Super Bowl victory. Yet the name "46," unlike the 4-3 or 3-4, didn't refer to the defensive alignment. Instead, it referred to the guy who wore jersey no. 46, Doug Plank, Chicago's clever and feisty strong safety. In the 46, Plank was moved out of the pure secondary and became a kind of linebacker. This allowed the Bears defense to put more defenders on the line of scrimmage than the offense could block on both runs and passes. Instead of matching the offense, the 46 sought to overwhelm it. And that season, the Bears did just that.

But, as they always do, offenses adapted to the 46. Spread formations and quick passes became serious challenges for defenses. Even Buddy Ryan, who became head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1986, found his beloved 46 defused by spread concepts and had to cease using it as an every-down defense.2 By the 1990s, defenses could no longer afford to predictably line up in eight-man fronts like the 46. In response, teams — most notably Tony Dungy's Tampa Bay Buccaneers — developed an approach that took away the short throws to the flats and deep passes that had given the eight-man front so many problems. They did this by using a two-deep coverage look while sending the middle linebacker deep down the center of the field to take away passes to the tight end. Thus, football pundits — particularly of the television variety — had a new catchphrase: The "Tampa 2." In this defense, safeties played deep to stop the big play.

But the Tampa 2, with two or three deep defenders, was weak against inside runs, and by the early 2000s offenses were too good to let you so obviously declare your intention: stop the pass or stop the run. Even teams that switched between eight-man fronts and two-deep coverages had trouble, since offenses could simply read the defense and shift between spread schemes and power formations. Defenses needed something better. They needed Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu.

Reed and Polamalu were part of a new breed of safety who could do everything a defensive coordinator needed. They could be Doug Plank in the 46 on one play and a deep Tampa 2 defender on the next. Defenses knew how to play pass coverage, but they couldn't figure out how to do it while also holding strong against the run. The answer — made possible by these game-changing safeties — came in the form of "Cover 4," also known as "Quarters." It's the most important defensive scheme of the past decade.

At first glance, Cover 4 looks like an anti-pass "prevent" formation, with four secondary defenders playing deep. But therein lies its magic. The four defenders are actually playing a matchup zone concept, in which the safety reads the tight end or inside receiver. If an offensive player lined up inside releases on a short pass route or doesn't release into the route, the safety can help double-team the outside receiver. If the inside receiver breaks straight downfield, it becomes more like man coverage. This variance keeps quarterbacks guessing and prevents defenses from being exploited by common pass plays like four verticals, which killed eight-man fronts. The real key to Cover 4, however, is that against the run both safeties become rush defenders (remember, the outside cornerbacks play deep). This allows defenses to play nine men in the box against the run — a hat-tip to the 46's overwhelming force.

This last point is crucial to why Polamalu and Reed thrive in Cover 4. Both safeties have responsibilities against the run; which role they take depends on which way the ball goes. If the running back rushes toward them, they usually have "force" responsibility — that is, they try to tackle the ball carrier. If the running back rushes away from them, they're responsible for covering the cutback and bootleg. The interior defenders are typically given "gap" responsibilities to plug the holes they expect to encounter against a specific run play. Those inside defenders typically use something called a "spill" technique, meaning they chase the running back toward the sideline, where he can be cornered and gang-tackled. But if you're going to force a runner to the outside, you better have someone waiting for him there. That player is the "force" player, and in Cover 4 that player is typically the safety, who has read the run and is in position to crush the ball carrier. Or at the least force him back into the linemen's arms.

The backside safety's job is even more important. He, too, will drop down for the run, but will do so cautiously as he looks to defend against a cutback. Many of the biggest runs in football come not in the initial burst but instead from the runner cutting back in the opposite direction, and it's that backside safety's job to be a sure tackler in space, something Reed and Polamalu do very well. With the safeties in support, the rest of the defenders can swarm the ball carrier. Of course, Cover 4 is but one tactic defensive coordinators can use. Pittsburgh, for example, mixes up its looks by sending Polamalu on a timely zone blitz straight up the middle to either stuff the run or bumrush the quarterback. Such variety is crucial, but Cover 4 has become one of the most important tactics for modern NFL defenses.

The history of football is essentially the history of ideas meeting talent meeting a moment. Decades of strategic tug-of-war preceded Reed's and Polamalu's careers, and they arrived at a point in the game's development when their skills were particularly needed. Their versatility in defending both pass and run plays allowed NFL defenses to claim victory in one of these strategic battles. Reed and Polamalu have had the good fortune of playing for excellent coaches, but they're also both so talented that they have bent coaches' schemes to their strengths and ruined opponents' carefully designed game plans. This is the beauty of watching these future Hall of Famers play: In every interception, in every tackle for loss, in every big hit and big return, football history is not only made, but also extended. Their brilliance on the field will continue to inspire the film room schemers to innovate, and football history will continue to be pushed by the twin forces of ideas and athleticism.

Chris Brown runs the website Smart Football. Follow him on Twitter: @smartfootball.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Falling for Pirates' Cole

Friday, October 21, 2011

Gerrit Cole threw 33 of 53 pitches for strikes against the Scorpions. (Jordan Megenhardt/

MESA, Ariz. — Gerrit Cole climbed the mound under searing 91-degree skies, the Valley of the Sun's red hills making for a fiery backdrop, and somehow he was the one bringing the heat.

That was my first thought when watching the Pirates' No. 1 overall draft pick, the $8 million golden right arm from UCLA, strut his stuff Thursday. In his second Arizona Fall League start, the radar gun showed seven pitches at 100 mph or faster, compared to one in his debut last week. Six pitches reached 100, the other 101. One high offering had the home plate umpire ducking before it popped the catcher's raised mitt.

It was about that time I overheard this from the visitors' dugout in mostly empty Hohokam Park: "You gotta be kiddin' me!"

Which led to my second thought: This isn't something we've seen in Pittsburgh.

The Pirates haven't had a pure strikeout pitcher since Oliver Perez. Even over the course of 125 years, they count Vern Law, Bob Friend and John Candelaria among their very best. None were big strikeout guys, and none is in the Hall of Fame.

That's not to remotely suggest Cole belongs in a discussion with those three. Or any major leaguer, for that matter. He probably is about two years away from his first pitch for the Pirates.

But it is to suggest Cole has a chance — even if that's all it is — to be truly special.

"Honestly, I'm not even looking ahead to next year right now," a sweat-free Cole told me after his three scoreless innings — two hits, a walk and three strikeouts — helped Mesa beat visiting Scottsdale, 4-1. "This is a great experience for me. It's all I'm thinking about, and I'm having fun with it."

OK, but good luck to anyone who watches this young man pitch and tries not to picture his future.

Cole is 21 years old, a filled-out 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, his arm is a cannon, and his delivery is as compact as that of Paul Maholm. His fastball sits at 97-98 mph when it isn't cracking triple digits, he especially impressed scouts yesterday with a dynamic changeup, he showed a good-enough slider, and he even toyed with two cutters that were new to the scouts.

That's natural talent above anything the Pirates have seen in recent memory, even with their recent high-priced amateur acquisitions. Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, has the total package but not that kind of velocity. Stetson Allie can throw 100 mph but is erratic and should end up a reliever. Luis Heredia, still a baby at 17, is flat-out difficult to project.

With Cole, what you see is what you get: He's big, strong, tough and looks ready to go.

It was the poise, though, that stood out for me. This is much more than just some jock rearing back.

The Arizona Fall League provides an annual six-week slate in which each major league team sends at least seven of its best prospects. The caliber of competition could rate as a plus version of Class AA, but it can be far better depending on matchups.

Cole would find a bunch of those yesterday. The top three spots in Scottsdale's lineup were filled by elite prospects who spent part of 2011 in the majors. At leadoff was Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels' outfielder who is ranked No. 1 in the sport by Baseball America. Fifth in the order was Washington phenom Bryce Harper, the outfielder who adorned Sports Illustrated's cover at age 16.

Robbie Grossman, the Pirates' outfield prospect leading the league with five home runs and 23 hits, called the Scottsdale card "as close to the majors as you get."

Cole didn't seem moved much. Unlike his first start last week, when he admitted nerves, he attacked each hitter based on a detailed plan, and he moved rhythmically and methodically through it. Against Trout, he went 1-1 by opening with two fastballs and gauged Trout's swing to see he was trying hard to pull. Cole threw a changeup, splintered Trout's bat and got a groundout.

"Yeah, there was a handful of big-league guys over there," Cole said. "You've just got to know what you're dealing with and trust your stuff. A lot of times, you're not going to throw your changeup until they prove they can get to your fastball. But against major league hitters or a lineup like this, you have to keep them off balance with some slow stuff."

For whatever Cole considers slow, his changeup was clocked at 89 mph.

No kiddin'.

Highlights: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Big Ben vs. Whiz: Ice Bowl II

By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
October 20, 2011

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and former assistant coach Ken Whisenhunt -- now the Cardinals' head coach -- worked together at a practice the Friday before Super Bowl XL in 2006. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH -- There's a perception that the relationship between Ben Roethlisberger and Ken Whisenhunt is a bit on the cool side.

Apparently, Roethlisberger was never enamored with the way he was handled early in his career when Whisenhunt, now head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, was the Steelers' offensive coordinator.

It was Roethlisberger himself who hinted that there may be some tension between the two when asked about Whisenhunt before Wednesday's practice.

Although Roethlisberger wasn't asked specifically if he has any problems with Whisenhunt, part of his answer was "there are no grudges."

There is a small faction which believes if Roethlisberger would have given Whisenhunt a strong endorsement after Bill Cowher resigned that Whisenhunt may have been named coach before Mike Tomlin got the job.

"Whiz was good," Roethlisberger said. "It took me awhile to realize ... I think he was very good because I was a young quarterback. He really held those reins real tight. He felt that was the way to approach a young quarterback. There are no grudges. That's the way he wanted to do it.

"I mean, as a quarterback you want to go, and you want to do no-huddle stuff and have the opportunity to change plays and do things. But either he didn't feel I was ready for it or that his system was the way to go. That's his prerogative."

Roethlisberger, the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft, became a starter in Week 3 of his rookie season after Tommy Maddox suffered an elbow injury. Roethlisberger went on to win all 13 of his regular-season starts. He didn't experience a loss until the Steelers lost in the AFC Championship Game to New England.

A year later, Roethlisberger became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

In both those seasons, the Steelers had a great defense and ran a run-oriented offense. Roethlisberger threw 295 passes as a rookie and 268 in the 12 games he played in '05.

Since Bruce Arians succeeded Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator in 2007, Roethlisberger has thrown less than 400 passes only once. That was last year when he threw 389 passes after missing the first four games of the season while on suspension.

"Obviously, (Ben) was thrust in the starting role after Tommy got hurt in that second game, and a lot of that was making sure he was ready," Whisenhunt said of the way Roethlisberger was handled as a rookie.

"You always defer to your head coach -- a lot of our staff felt that was the approach we should take with him -- try to do things he was comfortable with and giving him those things. We felt we had a lot of good football players around him and we were able to run the football, and that always helps. But any time you've got a young quarterback and you're trying to bring him along, the biggest thing is assessing what he does well and trying to make sure he's put in the right situation. A lot of that was Coach Cowher. That's what he believed in."

Since Whisenhunt went to Arizona, the Steelers and Cardinals have played twice. The first time was in 2007 when the Cardinals won at home, 21-14. In that game, Roethlisberger didn't play particularly well. He threw for 244 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions and was sacked four times while compiling a 72.9 passer rating.

The next season, the Steelers beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. In that game, Roethlisberger posted a 93.2 passer rating. He threw an interception and was sacked once. But he threw for 258 yards and the game-winning touchdown, a 6-yard throw to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left to play.

"It was fun," Roethlisberger said when asked if that Super Bowl win was the greatest moment of his career. "It ranks up there pretty high."

When asked if he now appreciates how he was handled by Whisenhunt from 2004-2006, Roethlisberger gave the politically correct answer.

"Yeah, probably," he said. "Thankful? Who knows? Maybe I would have liked to have done some stuff. But I appreciate the way he coached me. He was a good coach."