Friday, November 30, 2012

Russell Martin vs. Matt Morris, cage match

By Dejan Kovacevic | Trib Total Media columnist
November 29, 2012
The Pirates have agreed to terms with free-agent catcher Russell Martin on a two-year contract worth $17 million, according to multiple outlets.
I’ve already made my feelings clear on Martin, but to repeat: He batted .211/.311.403 last season for the Yankees, despite playing at a hitter-friendly ballpark, and he experienced a sixth consecutive year of offensive decline. He batted 18 points lower than Clint Barmes, just five points better than Rod Barajas.
To point out that Martin is a defensive upgrade over Barajas is an insult to the concept of upgrades. Martin is good, not great, behind the plate. Barajas was good at game-calling and receiving, horrific at throwing out baserunners.
Any of this have a familiar feel?
Flash back to 2007, when Bob Nutting had already been months into digging behind the scenes to uncover what was wrong with Dave Littlefield’s work. (And yeah, that would take months on volume alone.) By the time the trading deadline rolled around that summer and the team was sagging, it was … not entirely clear that Littlefield would be fired, but it was getting there.
Then, Matt Morris.
Littlefield insanely assumed Morris’ entire remaining contract from the giddy Giants — a guaranteed $13 million over the rest of 2007 and all of 2008 — and sent away an actual useful player, outfielder Rajai Davis,to boot. Morris was 33, had visibly been on the decline for nearly a year, and he’d have to be released the following summer by the new management team.
Now, here were again, with Nutting just having conducted an emasculating, embarrassing investigation of this Frank Coonelly/Neal Huntington/Kyle Stark front office, then going public to announce that those gentlemen would have to change the very basis of their modus operandi in the minors. These guys are hanging by a much thinner thread than Littlefield was at the time of Morris.
Sure enough, here comes a monster deal — by Pittsburgh standards — for a light-hitting catcher on the decline. A franchise record, actually. Most money ever paid to a free agent in the Pirates’ 127 years.
I don’t doubt that Martin will be a better performer for the Pirates than Morris, so I’m not literally comparing the acquisitions on a head-to-head basis. I also don’t doubt that Martin will be better than Barajas, if only marginally. If nothing else, he’s young enough at 30 that he’ll still be able to perform as well defensively as he has in the past.
But let’s not pretend this transaction was anything other than what it was: An overpriced desperation move that’s going to hurt the Pirates in more ways than one.
Let’s first remember that the foundation of this move is that Tony Sanchez has been a major disappointment. Sanchez, taken No. 4 overall in the 2009 draft, was the only first-rounder the Pirates took from 2008-11 out of the top two, and not coincidentally the only one that has veered off top-prospect status. By putting down $17 million, this management team has essentially acknowledged what it thinks of Sanchez in 2013 and 2014. Sanchez is 25 years old. If he takes three years to be ready, he’ll be washed up before arrival.
This, as with so much of what’s wrong with the Pirates, begins with the draft and development.
Now, let’s look at the immediate future, beginning with today. This is the date on which teams must tender arbitration-eligible players. The most likely surprise candidate for a non-tender is Jeff Karstens. Karstens is no Cy Young guy, but the arbitration barometers I’ve seen show he’s projected to get about $3.8 million. That’s a very good price even for 15-17 quality starts.
If Karstens is out, it takes rudimentary math to see that this Martin contract contributed to that decision.
And never mind Jason Grilli or Joel Hanrahan, the vital back-end of the bullpen. Grilli’s a free agent, Hanrahan’s an extensive arbitration guy.
The team doesn’t have all that much room on payroll, even though Nutting is taking it up into the range of about $70 million.
This Martin signing could be it.
So, who should the Pirates have gotten to catch?
The easy answer is to say Michael McKenry, whose extrapolated plate appearances give him numbers comparable to Martin. But that wouldn’t have been all that attractive, either.
The real answer goes right back to the foundation: This management team should have, over the course of five-plus years and $52 million in drafts and multiple trades and free-agent signings, come up with a better alternative than to feel motivated to go this way. They should have had enough pitching prospects that they could trade one or two for a good catcher. They should have found and instructed a catcher or two or five on their own.
I’ve had people writing to me about how the Pirates can’t win, how they’re either ripped for not spending or ripped when they do spend.
Not by me. To me, spending has never been the issue, and I’ve consistently written that for two years now. Rather, it’s been that the money Nutting’s given them has been spent abysmally. On the draft and in free agency. I’ve pounded that issue again and again and again.
And here it is yet again.
Did you see Jerry Crasnick’s write-up on the Pirates for ESPN yesterday?
In there, in addition to another team’s evaluator calling the Pirates’ development habits “bizarre,” you’ll find this quote from Huntington: “As an organization, we had the worst in record in all of baseball in September of 2010, and in September of 2012 we were playing meaningful games with playoff implications. That’s a pretty good two-year turnaround if you shift the lens.”
No. No, actually, it isn’t. Because the same management team that dug that 57-105 hole is the one still in place. You don’t get extra credit for exhuming your own cadavers.
Just like you don’t get any credit whatsoever for having to spend $17 million on a .211-hitting catcher because five years worth of player acquisitions were overall failures.
Just like you don’t get any credit for finding a catcher who hits five points better than one of the worst-hitting catchers we’ve ever seen in this city.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ravens-Steelers doesn't feel the same

Kevin Cowherd
Baltimore Sun
7:17 PM EST, November 28, 2012


The great sports rivalries give you all the passion of a street fight without that messy business of chains, knives and police interrogations afterward.
All these emotions come bubbling to the surface: rage, pride, joy, bitterness, etc.
And there's no better rivalry anywhere than the Ravens vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. Usually, it feels like the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, the Corleones vs. the Tattaglias and Ali vs. Frazier all rolled into one.
Except . . . somehow Sunday's game between the two at M&T Bank Stadium feels different this time around.
Part of that has to do with the Ravens' 9-2 record and their three-game lead over the Steelers in the AFC North.
Let's face it, you don't get the usual Armageddon-like buildup if one team can lose and simply shrug and say: "OK, no worries. We're still good. Where we going for beers?"
The other part has to do with how banged up the 6-5 Steelers are, especially at quarterback, where Ben Roethlisberger is nursing shoulder and rib injuries.
There were conflicting reports out of Pittsburgh Wednesday about whether the big guy would suit up this weekend.
In the span of two hours, one report said he would probably play, another said he was 50-50 and another said he was a definite scratch. So that was helpful.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was even more illuminating. In his conference call with the Baltimore media, he said of Big Ben: "He threw a little bit on Monday. He's scheduled to throw in some capacity today. We'll see where the week will take us."
What's amazing to me is that just two weeks ago, Roethlisberger's rib injury was being talked about as life-threatening.
The big guy was even quoted as being concerned about his top rib possibly puncturing his aorta if he was hit in the right place.
And now he might be OK to play?
What kind of wonder drugs are the Steelers giving this guy? He makes Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis look like they were kicking back by the pool during their rehab assignments.
But when asked yesterday about Big Ben's injuries being "life-threatening," Tomlin said: "I never viewed it as such. I know there was talk about that. But I wasn't involved in that discussion."
In any event, it was business as usual for the Ravens yesterday as they got ready to face the team they beat 13-10 two weeks ago at Heinz Field.
I know this'll shock you, but the Ravens refuse to acknowledge — at least publicly — that this will be anything but the usual saloon brawl against their arch-rivals.
"Put records aside," Ray Rice said. "Put everything aside. They're still the Pittsburgh Steelers. Every year, the rivalry never changes. They are who they are."
Except . . . they're sort of not who they usually are. At least not right now.
Not if Roethlisberger can't go and they start third-string quarterback Charlie Batch, who is the equivalent of 72 years old in NFL years.
Not if the Steelers are desperate enough at wide receiver to sign Plaxico Burress, whom the New York Jets cut loose after last season and who told USA Today he was good for two or three touchdowns "coming off the couch."
Fine. But how will he do coming off the bench?
But the Ravens said they're not concerned with any of that. And none of the players I spoke to said they felt a different vibe about this Steelers game, even with that comfortable three-game lead in the division.
"No, it may seem like that," Joe Flacco said. "But we're not in any more of a comfortable position. The more and more games we win, the more and more important all these games become. Just because we've positioned ourselves well, but we haven't decided anything yet.
"We're trying to become one of the top teams in the AFC," he continued. "And in order to do that, we have to win every week. And we understand that. And there's a big emphasis on continuing to win. It may seem like a loss may not kill us, but you never know. In this league, anything can happen."
"This team's a (ticked)-off 9-2," Rice said. "We feel we can get so much better. I've been around five years and this year just feels totally different. We're 9-2 and nobody's satisfied."
The way things are shaping up, there's a good chance they'll be 10-2 by Sunday evening.
Sure, it's a big game. Sure, it's the Steelers, who always give them a fight.
But it sure feels as if the Ravens are catching them at the right time.
Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ravens can clinch AFC North title on Sunday

Team needs another win against Pittsburgh and a Bengals loss to lock up division title

By Edward Lee
The Baltimore Sun
5:55 PM EST, November 27, 2012


Sunday's second showdown against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers could also bring the Ravens their second AFC North title in as many years.

A win against the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium combined with a Cincinnati Bengals loss to the San Diego Chargers — whom the Ravens edged, 16-13, in overtime this past Sunday — would give the Ravens the division crown for the fourth time in franchise history.

At 9-2 for only the second time in team history, the Ravens have a 97 percent chance to win the AFC North, according to, which uses statistics to simulate the NFL schedule and make projections.

The Ravens would seem to have a comfortable cushion, but on Monday, coach John Harbaugh showed no content about the team's playoff positioning.

"There is no comfort in football," Harbaugh said. "It's not allowed. Comfort is not the word that comes to mind. 'Competitive,' 'confront' — not comfort — comes to mind. So no, we have no comfort."
Harbaugh's sentiment was echoed by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.

"We did a good job coming to San Diego and getting a win, but next week is Pittsburgh and we'll worry about the playoffs after the last game of the season," Suggs said. "Believe me when I tell you the only thing we're worried about now is Pittsburgh."

The Ravens (9-2) own a three-game lead over Pittsburgh (6-5), which lost to the last-place Cleveland Browns, 20-14, on Sunday, and the Bengals (6-5), who defeated the Oakland Raiders, 34-10.
A victory Sunday would give the Ravens their second sweep of the series against Pittsburgh in as many years. They would lead the Steelers by four games with four to play, and by virtue of those two wins, the Ravens would hold the tiebreaker.

If the Ravens win and the Bengals lose to the Chargers, Cincinnati would also trail by four games. And even if Cincinnati won out and beat the Ravens in the regular-season finale Dec. 30, the Ravens would own the tiebreaker by virtue of a 5-1 record against AFC North opponents. The best the Bengals can do is 3-3 within the division.

The Ravens put themselves in this commanding position by rallying from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and nipping San Diego in overtime Sunday. An offense that managed just five first downs and 90 yards in the first half exploded with 20 first downs and 353 yards after that point.
And Pittsburgh's shocking loss to the Browns was not lost on the Ravens.
"It's a huge win for us, but I think even more so, you look at our division, Pittsburgh lost, and we were able to get another win," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "We go three games up and we have them at our place. For us, we're trying to win our division first and place ourselves in good position for the playoffs."

The Ravens can stamp their tickets to the postseason this Sunday, and Harbaugh conceded that the opportunity to do so could be a motivating factor.

"Our guys have positioned themselves very well," he said. "To take advantage of an opportunity, that's what you try to do. We talked. Every game you win, it makes that next game that much more important. The importance of the games builds throughout the course of the season when you're winning. So, this game is more important than last week. Of course, it's obviously against Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has their backs against the wall, but this game is the same no matter what. Our concern is with us, it's how we play and we're looking forward to it."
Sweeping the Steelers won't be easy. They barely lost the first meeting, 13-10, on Nov. 18, and several reports have speculated that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — who missed the first game because of a dislocated rib and sprained right throwing shoulder — could return Sunday.
That's why the Ravens aren't looking beyond this weekend.
"We're going to get rested up and be ready to go," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We all know how important this Pittsburgh game will be and we're going to be as focused as we've ever been, I would think."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.
  •  Text FOOTBALL to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun Ravens text alerts
  • Sunday, November 25, 2012

    Rapid Reaction: Browns 20, Steelers 14

    By Jamison Hensley
    AFC North Blog
    November 25, 2012

    CLEVELAND -- My thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 20-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Stadium:

    What it means: The Browns (3-8) delivered a hit to the Steelers' hopes of capturing the AFC North, beating Pittsburgh for just the second time in 18 meetings. The Steelers (6-5) dropped into a tie with the Bengals and fell 2½ games behind the Ravens, who play at San Diego this afternoon. Pittsburgh looked ragged on offense without its top two quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, who are injured. The Steelers' offense turned the ball over eight times, which included fumbles by all four running backs (Rashard MendenhallJonathan DwyerIsaac Redman and Chris Rainey), three interceptions by third-stringer Charlie Batchand a game-ending fumble by receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Browns' 20 points against the Steelers are their most in a game against Pittsburgh since November 2007, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
    Capitalizing on Steelers' mistakes: The Browns scored 17 points off eight turnovers by the Steelers. Two of Pittsburgh's turnovers (Batch's first interception and Redman's fumble) gave the ball to Cleveland deep in Steelers territory. Three plays afterSheldon Brown picked off Batch (his first interception), rookie running back Trent Richardson ran for a 15-yard touchdown to put Cleveland ahead 20-14 with 5:19 left in the third quarter.

    Weeden hurt: Rookie first-round quarterback Brandon Weeden was hurt in the fourth quarter and left the game with a head injury. Colt McCoy played the final two series and didn't throw a pass. Weeden finished 17-of-26 for 158 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

    Batch struggles mightily: In his first start since last December, Batch was 20-of-34 for 199 yards. He was picked off three times, including twice in the fourth quarter. Batch's record as a fill-in starter for the Steelers fell to 5-3.

    No whistle: Despite turning the ball over three times in the first half, the Steelers went into halftime with a 14-13 lead. After Brown's pass-interference penalty on Plaxico Burress in the end zone, Rainey got stuffed by Kaluka Maiava and D'Qwell Jackson on a run up the middle. But the whistle didn't blow, and Rainey bounced to the left side, where he scored easily.

    Becoming offensive on defense: The Steelers' defense has been the best in the NFL in not allowing yards, but it has been among the worst in causing turnovers. That changed 71 seconds into the game when defensive end Brett Keisel tipped Weeden's pass and linebackerLawrence Timmons returned it 53 yards for a touchdown. Entering Week 12, the Steelers had five interceptions. Only the Colts had fewer.

    Still Mr. Perfect: Browns kicker Phil Dawson converted from 28 and 32 yards to remain perfect for the season (21-of-21). He extended his streak to 27 straight field goals, which ties his career long.

    More injuries for Steelers: Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley injured his ankle in the first half and didn't play after halftime. Woodley missed one game earlier this season with a hamstring injury. Later in the game, rookie right tackle Mike Adams went down with a bad ankle injury. He was replaced by rookie seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum.

    What's next: The Steelers play at the AFC North-leading Ravens just two weeks removed from losing to them. The Browns travel to Oakland in search of their first road win since September 2011.

    With Steelers' Big Ben Roethlisberger out of commission, Cleveland Browns hope it's their time to shine

    By Mary Kay Cabot
    The Cleveland Plain Dealer
    November 25, 2012

    CLEVELAND, Ohio - With Ben Roethlisberger out with a rib injury and the Steelers down to 37-year-old third-team quarterback Charlie Batch, the Browns are viewing this as a game they darn well better win.
    Never mind that they're 2-8 and that the 6-4 Steelers roll into town with the league's No. 1 defense.
    "We've been in a lot of ballgames and they're dealing with their third-string quarterback," said Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "It's one of those deals where we smell blood, let's take advantage of it. But you've got to respect them. They've got a lot of skill guys on the outside. I played those guys for years. I think we match up well with 'em."
    Coach Pat Shurmur knows the Browns won't be on easy street just because Big Ben, who's 14-1 against the Browns, is out. Batch is 5-2 as a starter with the Steelers, including a 34-21 victory over the Browns in 2005. In his lone start last year, he beat the Rams, 27-0; and the Steelers almost defeated the 8-2 Ravens last week with Byron Leftwich at the helm. They lost 13-10 and also lost Leftwich to broken ribs.
    "This is going to be a battle," Shurmur said. "I've seen it before. I know it's the case. Veteran quarterbacks that have been in the league a long time find a way to come in and be very efficient. He's a veteran player amongst a very veteran team. That's what we're anticipating. There's enough previous film on Charlie where you can see how he functions. We've got to try to piece it together with how they play offense now, which is a little bit different. You basically get ready to play the Steelers, and just know that they've got a veteran leader behind center."
    It's easy to see why some of the Browns feel a little hopeful with Big Ben sidelined. He's 34-9 against AFC North foes, and the Steelers are only 4-4 under Mike Tomlin without him. But they know it's still the Steelers, who've won 16 of the last 17 meetings.
    "There are very few people that are Ben Roethlisberger anywhere," said Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. "Charlie Batch is an NFL quarterback that has had a lot of playing experience in this league. He has won a lot of games. I have a lot of respect for Charlie, I always have. He'll certainly be able to control the football game, understand their offense and everything they do. He won't have the arm strength, clearly, that Ben has. Again, there are very few that do anywhere. We'll have our hands full with their speed and their skill, and just their overall ability on the offensive side."
    Batch is 24-29 as a starter with 60 TDs, 48 INTs and a 77.8 rating. In his seven starts with the Steelers, he's completed 60.9 percent of his passes with eight TDs and seven INTs for an 83.7 rating. In his victory over the Browns in 2005, he completed 13 of 19 attempts with no TDs and no picks. He also rushed for a TD.
    "We expect him to play winning football," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "We believe he's capable of that. He's a veteran player, one that's distinguished himself over the latter part of his career of being able to play above the line on a limited number of snaps. He's done it for us as recently as last year, he did it for us in 2010 and we expect the same."
    Steelers receiver Mike Wallace notes that no one can replace Roethlisberger, but expects big things from Batch.
    "We know Chuck has good leadership and he takes control of the huddle every single time he comes into a game," said Wallace. "We know he knows every single read. We just know we have a veteran guy. We know we've got a guy who's been playing 16 years, so there's not too much he hasn't seen. We feel comfortable with him."
    Batch will also have 6-5 veteran receiver Plaxico Burress, who was signed this week.
    "This is the biggest guy I've played with ever since I've been in the NFL," said Wallace. "Hopefully he can take some coverage away, some guys go over there and it'll free up me, Heath (Miller) and Emmanuel (Sanders)."
    Regardless of who's at quarterback, the Browns still have to contend with the NFL's top-ranked defense, including the No. 1 unit against the pass.
    "The best thing about this defense is that they have good players," said Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden. "They've got guys that have been in the league for a long time, they've got guys that can tackle and they've got guys scheme-wise that are really, really good. (Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's) a big zone-blitz guy. They don't give up many big plays. They try to keep everything in front and they do a great job with it. They've done it for a long time and I don't really expect it to change when we play them."
    The Steelers have gone 4-1 in the last five games largely because of their defense. They've held opponents to 20 points or fewer during that span and 200 total net yards or less in three of those five outings. They've also held the last five quarterbacks to sub-76.0 ratings, and the list is a who's who in the NFL: Andy Dalton (56.4), Robert Griffin (72.8), Eli Manning (41.1), Matt Cassel (46.0) and Joe Flacco (75.5). The pass defense has allowed the second-fewest completions (169) in the NFL this season.
    But Browns receiver Greg Little, for one, is undaunted.
    "I feel like they have some holes in their defense that we can exploit," he said. "I feel like the coaches have done a very good job of scouting, and I think we'll be able to beat them downfield as well as short to intermediate things.
    "I never go into a game (lacking confidence) and I don't think any of my teammates do either. It's just a defense that makes plays, and as of late we've been making a lot of plays as well. We have to improve in the red zone, and I think if we do that, we'll definitely win."
    Receiver Josh Cribbs doesn't think the young guys will grasp the intensity of the rivalry until the game is over. The Browns are aiming to snap a five-game losing streak to the Steelers.
    "It'll mean everything for the city and our fans (if we win)," he said. "That's why I'm going to be egging the guys on. Not that they need it, but I'm going to be still standing there like, 'You know what this means for our city? We've lost a lot of games, but we can make it right.' Our coaches are beating it in everybody's heads. Letting them know what it means, to the rookies more than anybody. Because this rivalry is everything to us and our fans. It's about bragging rights."
    And maybe, just maybe, with Big Ben on the sidelines, the Browns will finally have something to brag about.
    To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: mcabot@plaind.com216-999-4370
    On Twitter: @marykaycabot

    Saturday, November 24, 2012

    Cleveland Browns fans waving white flags? Another brilliant sports promotion

    By Bud Shaw
    Cleveland Plain Dealer
    November 21, 2012

    spin-terribletowel.JPGWondering why the Pittsburgh Steelers have won 16 of their past 17 games against the Cleveland Browns? The Steelers give their fans "Terrible Towels.'' The Browns give their fans white flags. Next question?
    CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Whew, good thing Jimmy Haslam is running things now.
    The Browns and Ticketmaster have put their heads together -- or not -- to give fans attending Sunday's game against Pittsburgh white inflatable flags to wave.
    There is an orange helmet on the flag and the name "Cleveland Browns," presumably to clear up any confusion over which side has customarily given up hope of going home with a win.
    The Browns have lost 16 of 17 to the Steelers.
    So this isn't the most questionable promotional idea you can imagine. Losing 17 of 17 would make it that.
    I don't want to say the Browns and Ticketmaster aren't thinking things through here.
    But just in case the Browns are not up on their battle symbolism, somebody warn them that if the Steelers offer the gift of a Trojan horse, chances are Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are going to spill out of it and do some damage.
    Most of the wackiest sports promotions in history are intentionally designed to amuse the fans in attendance, provide pleasure even.
    Some go horribly wrong from there as we learned from "Ten Cent Beer Night" and "Disco Demolition Night."
    Others in that category:
    "Ball Day" -- The Dodgers handed out souvenir baseballs to their fans in August 1995. That game ended in a rare forfeit after an argument between Dodgers players and umpires became so heated fans threw hundreds of baseballs on the field.
    "Derek Lowe Poster Night" -- Lowe, the Red Sox closer at the time, entered the game with a three-run lead in the ninth and melted down. He gave up five runs.
    Fans littered the field with his posters and the game had to be stopped. Outside Fenway, Lowe contends, he saw fans feeding his posters into a bonfire.
    That can happen. But it takes a special promotion to alienate fans from the beginning. Inflatable white flags take a deserving spot in that lineup:
    "Pre-Planned Funeral Night" -- The Hagerstown Suns brought their fans to the ballpark thinking about their own mortality and sent one lucky? fan home with a $6,500 funeral completely paid for. A depressing time was had by all.
    "Salute to Indoor Plumbing Night" -- The idea behind the West Virginia Power promotion was to shut down all the stadium rest room facilities and have fans use portable toilets so they'd go home with a better appreciation of modern conveniences. The board of health nixed it.
    "Nobody Night" -- The Charleston Riverdogs locked paying customers out for the first five innings so they could make history with a game played in front of -- you guessed it -- no one. What a deal.
    Actually, Browns fans might prefer that compared to surrender symbolism.
    But let's not be too hard on the folks in Berea, who were obviously trying to come up with an answer to the Terrible Towel.
    It's not as if Roberto Duran will walk to midfield as honorary captain Sunday, flip the coin and declare "No mas" if the Browns lose the toss.
    When asked, I believe he was unavailable.
    What's behind Door No. 3?
    Be careful what you're thankful about in Cleveland sports. There's always a catch.
    Ben Roethlisberger is out for Sunday's game.
    So the Steelers are down to their third quarterback.
    The catch? Charlie Batch suits their offense better than No. 2 quarterback Byron Leftwich, last seen throwing passes with all the touch of Zeus firing thunderbolts.
    Batch is 5-2 as a starter in place of Roethlisberger, though he hasn't thrown a pass in a real game in 2012.
    Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who doesn't exactly have a deft touch in handling quarterbacks, let Leftwich play last time out with damaged ribs. He chose not to use Batch.
    The Steelers are running a shorter passing offense, ostensibly meant to keep Roethlisberger healthier this season. Batch doesn't have a strong arm but has shown a nice touch and the ability to slide around in the pocket.
    "We know Batch from years previous," Pat Shurmur said this week. "I think when veteran quarterbacks come in they tend to do well."
    You can be sure the Steelers aren't coming in waving white flags.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2012

    Plaxico Burress eager to play

    Associated Press
    November 21, 2012

    PITTSBURGH -- The No. 80 jersey Plaxico Burress walked away from eight years ago still fits.
    It's everything else that's changed for the former -- and suddenly current -- Pittsburgh Steelerswide receiver.
    The talented but immature kid who bolted as a free agent for the New York Giants in 2005 is 35 now, his resume complete with a Super Bowl ring and a 20-month jail stint stemming from a gun charge.
    Burress returned to the team that drafted him a dozen years ago on Wednesday hungry, humble and eager to prove there's still some life left in a career that's never quite lived up to his own outsized expectations.
    "I can't say I was ever going to come back to Pittsburgh ... but literally and physically the opportunity to finish what you started, how many guys get that?" Burress said 24 hours after the Steelers signed him to bolster an injury-depleted receiving corps.
    Despite not taking a live snap in more than 10 months, Burress thinks he can play as early as Sunday when the Steelers (6-4) travel to Cleveland (2-8).
    "I don't see why not." Burress said.
    Neither does the guy who will throw him the ball.
    "He's played, he's won in this league," said quarterback Charlie Batch, who will start in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger. "The speed of the game is not going to be new to him. When you say the play, he can line up and go and make the play without thinking about it."
    Not thinking, however, is something that dogged Burress even before accidentally shooting himself in a New York club four years ago. During his five seasons in Pittsburgh there were times when the smallness of the city got to him and his mental lapses on the field annoyed the coaching staff.
    Those days, he insists, are over.
    "I'm an old man," Burress said. "I have a wife, a family. I'm in just a total different direction. I'm happy to be out here playing football. My wife is excited. My son is excited."
    And Burress is excited to be back in a uniform, regardless of the color. He spent the past three months watching the NFL go on without him after the New York Jets declined to re-sign him following a productive -- and quiet -- return to the league last fall.
    Burress isn't sure why the phone stopped ringing. His numbers in New York -- 45 receptions for 612 yards and eight touchdowns -- were solid. While he'll never be the downfield threat he was in his prime, he understands 6-foot-5 receivers are hard to come by.
    So Burress kept working out in South Florida, believing there was enough left in his ridiculously long legs to fend off retirement. He was standing in the airport in Austin, Texas preparing to head home when the call from Pittsburgh came.
    A day later he was working out for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. The one-year contract was signed within a couple hours and by Wednesday afternoon he was on the practice field playing catch with teammates Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders and trading jokes with nose tackleCasey Hampton.
    "I think he's just been misunderstood," said Hampton, one of a handful of Steelers still around from Burress' first stint with the team. "If you know him, he's always been a good guy and a good teammate."
    And hopefully an effective one, too. The passing game has flourished under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, though the one thing the Steelers have lacked is a receiver with Burress' size to create mismatches in the end zone. Jerricho Cotchery is the next tallest receiver on the roster at 6-1, and he's out indefinitely with fractured ribs.
    Batch expects to spend a couple days experimenting with Burress to see where he fits in. Even if the Steelers can't quite figure it out in the span of a week, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
    "We don't know how we're going to use him, so how can somebody else know how to go out and defend him?" Batch said. "He is such a threat. He has his height. He's capable of making big plays."
    Burress isn't quite ready to go that far. When asked if he can play on every down if necessary, he shrugged his shoulders and said simply, "we'll have to see."
    Even if he's just a situational option, however, Burress thinks he can cause problems even if the ball doesn't come anywhere near him.
    "I'm learning where I need to be and adding a different wrinkle to this offense," he said. "Maybe I can draw some double coverage and open some guys up."
    Whether he's a long-term option or simply a short-term fix is still unknown. Wallace is in the final year of his contract but Sanders has developed into a reliable second option behindAntonio Brown when healthy.
    There's too much going on for Burress to give much thought to the future. Or the past for that matter. He understands his highly publicized missteps will follow him until he retires. He can live with it so long as it means he gets to keep playing.
    "If you're worried about what's going on behind you, you can't pay attention to what's going on in front of you," he said. "I'm just going to keep moving forward. Obviously I've been through some things but at the same time I'm still here."


    Steelers rookie right guard David DeCastro practiced for the first time on Wednesday since injuring his right knee in a preseason game against Buffalo on Aug. 25. The earliest DeCastro could return is against San Diego on Dec. 9 ... Roethlisberger did not practice on Wednesday, but he also walked through the locker room without a sling over his injured right arm ... Leftwich, Cotchery, safety Troy Polamalu (calf), tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) and DE Ziggy Hood (back) also did not practice.

    Monday, November 19, 2012

    Ravens take control of division with defense

    By Jamison Hensley
    AFC North Blog
    November 19, 2012

    Heath MillerJason Bridge/US PresswireAfter scoring a touchdown in the first minute, Pittsburgh managed only three points after.
    PITTSBURGH -- The reason why the Baltimore Ravens strengthened their grip on another AFC North title was the timely and tenacious play of their defense.

    For the previous decade, that statement wouldn't come as a surprise. But for a banged-up defense -- one that has taken as many blows from critics as it has from injuries this season -- the stubborn performance was like a blindside hit from James Ihedigbo. If you didn't know he played for the Ravens before his fourth-quarter sack Sunday night, you're not the only one.

    This patchwork defense took the ball away from the Pittsburgh Steelers and gave up very little after the opening drive, carrying the team to a 13-10 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field and proving it's better than its No. 27 ranking.
    Is this a championship-caliber defense? Let's see how this group fares against the likes of Philip RiversEli Manning and Peyton Manning over the next few weeks before getting into hyperbole. What Baltimore's defense showed Sunday nightwas it's good enough to win this division and get the Ravens to the playoffs when the offense disappears once again on the road.

    The Ravens forced two turnovers, something the NFL's top-ranked defense was unable to do. They stopped the Steelers on 12 of 17 third downs. And, most importantly, they kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone for the final 59 minutes, 17 seconds.

    Yes, the Ravens caught a break when Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined with rib and shoulder injuries and they instead faced Byron Leftwich, whose long windup makes Tim Tebow's release look like Kurt Warner's. Some will want to put an asterisk by this defensive effort because the Steelers are 0-5 against the Ravens since 2004 without Roethlisberger. Just don't forget the fact that the Ravens have only six starters from the defense that played in the AFC championship game 10 months ago. Ray Lewis was standing in sweats on the sideline, and Baltimore started a Pro Bowl special teams player in Corey Graham at cornerback.

    That's why the Ravens entered this game ranked 27th in yards allowed and 26th against both the run and the pass. But it was this low-ranked defense that made the plays for the Ravens to improve to 8-2 and extend their lead to two games over the Steelers with six weeks remaining.

    "I'm starting to believe that the numbers really don't matter for the simple fact that we've been in the top-10 defense for years and yet have no Super Bowl rings to account for them," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Last year, in the AFC championship, we lost to the 31st-ranked defense. I guess the numbers are all good for you guys to pile on, but I guess the only thing that matters is wins or losses."

    Where the Ravens' defense won the game was in the fourth quarter, when it held the Steelers to 51 total yards and didn't let them get into field-goal range to tie the game.

    On their first drive of the fourth quarter, the Steelers moved to the Baltimore 46-yard line. It ended with a third-down sack by Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who is not the same player this season with shoulder and knee injuries.

    On the Steelers' second drive, they got to the Ravens' 42-yard line. That was stopped by a third-down sack from Ihedigbo, a backup safety who was signed eight days before the season opener.

    The Ravens did get lucky when Leftwich couldn't get the ball to a wide-open David Gilreathdeep downfield with 12 seconds remaining. But the two previous plays were incompletions because Graham nailed tight end Heath Miller and Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard crushedJerricho Cotchery.

    "So many count us out. So many people say things about us," Pollard said. "We're coming together. We're getting into a nice stride. For us, when people score, it's because we make mistakes."
    [+] Enlarge
    Corey Graham, Mike Wallace, Ed Reed
    AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Ravens forced the Steelers to commit three turnovers and turned two of those into six points.
    Pollard owned up for the missed tackle of Leftwich on the 31-yard touchdown run in the first minute of the game. That was the only costly mistake by the defense.

    In what typifies where the Ravens stand defensively, they got turnovers from two unlikely players. Chris Johnson, who was signed this week to add depth at cornerback, stripped wide receiver Mike Wallace in the first quarter. Graham, a 2011 Pro Bowl special teams player, intercepted Leftwich in the third. The Ravens converted those turnovers into six points.

    Baltimore's offense needed all of the help it could get. How many thought the Ravens would win if they got 164 yards passing from Joe Flacco and 40 yards rushing from Ray Rice? To the defense's credit, no one is slapping each other on the back after stepping up when the team needed it the most.

    "We have to be consistent. We have to compile these defensive stands," Suggs said. "We played good defense but also we got to be able to do it against a starting quarterback. Next week, we have Philip Rivers and he torched us last year. We'll see how we do next week."

    Where the Ravens are championship caliber is in the red zone. The Steelers got to within four yards of the end zone in the third quarter and failed to punch it in. The Ravens, the top-ranked defense in the red zone, haven't allowed a touchdown when the opponent has gotten inside the 20-yard line in three straight games (nine drives in the red zone).

    "If they get down there, we have to hold them to three," Pollard said. "I think if we can hold them to three and continue to score seven, if you do the math, we come out on top."

    The Steelers did help the Ravens out with their game plan. They didn't stick with the run when it looked like the Ravens were wearing down. And Pittsburgh didn't exploit a Baltimore secondary that didn't have two of its top three cornerbacks (Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith).

    Pittsburgh had success throwing deep on the first play of the game when Cary Williams was called for pass interference on Wallace. Why didn't the Steelers continue to test the Ravens deep?

    "When everybody's commenting on Leftwich's elongated throw, they didn't want him holding the ball too long and have Mike Wallace go downfield," Suggs said. "But you have to remember we have the best safety in the world [Ed Reed] back there: Superman. He can cover both halves of the field. I'll be totally honest with you, I wouldn't take a chance of throwing the ball up there where 20 can get it. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he becomes an offensive player and can go the distance with it."

    The Steelers were supposed to be the ones turning back the clock with the 1934 bumblebee-style uniforms. Instead, it was the Ravens defense that invoked some nostalgia.

    Will the Ravens' wounded defense continue to recreate some of its old magic? Probably not. But this group is showing signs of turning things around.

    "We're 8-2 but we're not happy about it. We know we can play better," Suggs said. "We have yet to play our best football. Coming down the stretch in November and December, there's very few teams better than us."


    Saturday, November 17, 2012

    Like Ravens, Steelers dealing with injuries, questions on defense

    By Matt Vensel
    The Baltimore Sun
    November 16, 2012

    Is this the year their aging defense finally kicks the bucket? How will they survive without the face of the defense in the huddle every Sunday? Can they get their once-feared pass rush back?

    Sound familiar?

    Since they reported for training camp in late July, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had to defend themselves against similar questions to the ones that have dogged the Ravens (7-2) over the past 3 1/2 months. But unlike their AFC North rivals from Baltimore, whom they will host at Heinz Field on Sunday night, the Steelers (6-3) have come up with better answers.

    "We don't let that get to us. We can't care what people say," starting cornerback Keenan Lewis said. "Everybody is going to have something to say to us. But that's all they are, just opinions."

    The historically stingy Steelers haven't just survived without perennial Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, and with other veteran defenders, such as safety Ryan Clark and sack-happy outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley battling injuries — they actually continue to thrive, despite the fact they will likely start seven 30-something defenders Sunday.

    The Steelers rank first in the league in total defense, pass defense and yards allowed and seventh in scoring defense, carrying on the tradition of a unit that has dominated the NFL since 2008.

    Over the past five seasons, the Steelers have allowed a league-low 16.2 points per game and an NFL-fewest 271.9 yards per game (the Ravens rank second and third in those categories, respectively).

    They say they have been able to keep it going thanks to contributions from younger defenders such as Lewis, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and defensive end Ziggy Hood. Lewis has knocked down a team-high 19 passes. Timmons had the game-turning interception in Monday's win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Hood is doing his best to replace Aaron Smith, who retired before this season.

    "It's the mentality here. It's always the next guy up. There can't be [any] drop-off," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said Friday. "The Steelers don't bring a lot of [marquee] free agents in. We bring in guys and put them through the system. The next guy up has usually been in the system for a few years and knows what he is doing. That helps out a lot when we have injuries."

    Sound familiar?

    The Ravens have been ravaged by injuries — and a few key free-agent departures — but they are still waiting for young players such as defensive end Pernell McPhee, nose tackle Terrence Cody and outside linebacker Paul Kruger to become consistent contributors. Another recent draft pick who has disappointed, cornerback Jimmy Smith, is now sidelined after sports hernia surgery.

    With inside linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb on injured reserve and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs trying to play through injuries, the Ravens rank 27th in yards allowed and are 13th in scoring defense. They have just 16 sacks, but have averaged two takeaways per game.

    Like that proud Ravens unit, the Steelers also believe they have plenty of things to fix if they are to get back to playing the brand of smothering defense on which they built their reputation.

    The Steelers are tied with the Ravens and two other teams for 22nd in sacks. Only one team has forced fewer than the Steelers' nine takeaways, something that has been a regular topic of discussion in Pittsburgh's meeting rooms this week. And they are in the middle of the pack in third-down defense and red-zone defense, two areas that could be the difference in Sunday's showdown.

    "We had quite a few young players who were taking on a larger role. I think they're growing and some of the guys that are coming back in are getting their football reactions better," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "But teams should get better as you go through the year. We hope we have a lot of improvement in front of us. We sure need to get better."

    Harrison and Woodley, two recent tormentors of the Ravens, are back after missing games earlier in the season, though they have combined for just four sacks. Clark, a Pro Bowler for the first time in 2011, has suffered concussions in two of his last three games, but says he has been cleared to play Sunday. Polamalu, who has only played in two games, has been ruled out.
    "We've had some injuries, but every team goes through that," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
    Polamalu, whose long curly black hair is the most iconic aesthetic of the Steelers defense, has made many pivotal plays in this rivalry, like his interception return for a touchdown in the 2008 AFC championship game and his soaring strip-sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco two seasons ago. But with Polamalu sidelined by a nagging calf injury, the Steelers are struggling to recreate that kind of chaos.
    "He's a different type of cat," Hampton said. "It's just the speed that he plays at. He's going to cause [turnovers]. He brings a different dimension, and you definitely can't replicate that."
    Still, even without Polamalu's freelancing, the scheme is similar. In LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme, the Steelers send blitzers from all angles and disguise their coverages behind their pass rush.
    Their plan of attack against the Ravens should also remain the same. While showing Flacco and his speedy set of receivers their due respect, the Steelers say their priority will again be to stymie Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice with a rushing defense that is ranked sixth in the league.
    "Our guys like a test. Every week is a test in itself, but now you go against a great defense," said Cam Cameron, whose Ravens offense is averaging 17.5 points on the road. "It's a division game. It's got all the markings of why you do what you do as players and coaches in this business."
    With the inside track to the AFC North title on the line Sunday night, the records and rankings and newspaper clippings will get tossed into the Monongahela River on the way to Heinz Field.
    The aging and injured Steelers know more work needs to be done to get where they want to go. And no, it's not the top of the NFL's defensive rankings. It's the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
    "There's a lot of areas we need to improve," Keisel said. "But all we care about is winning games."
    Sound familiar?