Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hurdle's worth to Bucs invaluable

PITTSBURGH -- Only once since the Baseball Writers Association of America began its Manager of the Year awards in 1983 has there been a repeat winner.
Bobby Cox won the National League award in 2004 and 2005. Cox was worthy of any and all accolades during his many years with the Braves and received the ultimate honor in July when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It’s time for a second manager to join Cox as a back-to-back winner, and that is the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle.
Granted, there is a bias in watching Hurdle manage more often than others in his fraternity, but it’s hard to believe anyone in the NL maneuvered their team around more potholes this season than the Pirates’ skipper.
Just look at some of the, um, hurdles the Pirates overcame this year to make the postseason for the second straight year following 20 straight losing seasons.
Closer Jason Grilli melted down and was traded to the Angels in June. Fourth starter Wandy Rodriguez didn’t make it to Memorial Day before being released. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez developed throwing yips and had to be moved to first base. Right fielder Gregory Polanco didn’t live up expectations after being called up from Class AAA Indianapolis.
Then there were all in the injuries. Center fielder and reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen spent time on the disabled list. Alvarez, left-hander Francisco Liriano, right-hander Gerrit Cole, catcher Russell Martin, second baseman Neil Walker and left fielder Starling Marte joined him.
Yet Hurdle held it all together with his positive attitude that reassured his team that everything would be fine and provided confidence to those players who had to step in to fill various voids.
“I’ve been in situations where you can tell you just aren’t good enough,” Hurdle said. “That thought never crossed my mind this year. The beauty of it is that, on paper, there probably are a lot of teams that look better than us. But I continue to remind these guys that we don’t play on paper. We get to go play on grass. That’s what we do well. We’re a good team.”
One of the hardest things to do in baseball is determining a manager’s worth. Not in this case, though. Hurdle has meant everything to the Pirates.

Lack of pass rush holding back Steelers

By Scott Brown
September 29, 2014

PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell said he felt “sick” after a come-from-ahead 27-24 loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. 

It wouldn’t make Mitchell feel any better to know that there was an undeniable symmetry between the resplendent day that the Steelers insisted on marring with penalty after penalty and the last time a journeyman wide receiver named Louis Murphy ruined a lot of Sundays in the greater Pittsburgh area. 

[+] EnlargeMike Glennon
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsThe Steelers got little pressure on Bucs QB Mike Glennon, who passed for 302 yards.
Murphy burned the Steelers for 128 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the Oakland Raiders’ 27-24 upset of Pittsburgh in 2009 at Heinz Field. Murphy’s 41-yard catch-and-run late in a game that the Steelers were determined to blow led to the same final score on Sunday -- and ultimately the same questions that dogged the 2009 team as well as the other Mike Tomlin-coached teams that have failed to make the playoffs. 

The overriding one is why have the Steelers developed a habit of losing to lesser teams they should beat when they have a chance of stringing victories together. 

It happened too often in 2012 and 2013. 

It happened again on Sunday -- and against a team that had lost its previous game by 42 points. 

Forget for a second that Mike Glennon’s easy throw to Murphy in the middle of the field, which set up his game-winning touchdown pass with seven seconds to play, appeared to be the result of linebacker Lawrence Timmons not taking a deep enough drop with the Steelers in a zone. 

That pitch-and-catch between a quarterback who had been a backup through the Buccaneers’ first three games and a wide receiver who had been on the street until last week was a symptom of something larger that ails the Steelers. 

They simply cannot generate enough pressure on the quarterback to cover for a suspect secondary. 

Not even close. 

While the Buccaneers were dumping Ben Roethlisberger five times, including one that led to a key turnover early, the Steelers rarely got to Glennon or even made the second-year man uncomfortable in the pocket. 

The Steelers sacked Glennon just one time and hit the slender 6-foot-6 signal-caller only four times. 

The Steelers got all of two quarterback pressures from their outside linebackers, which was a main reason why Glennon looked like a seasoned pro in throwing for 301 yards and a pair of touchdowns and needed just 33 seconds to march the Buccaneers 46 yards for the winning score. 

The reality, a quarter into the season, is that the Steelers are probably going to have to outscore a lot of teams to win 10 games and avoid sinking into a cycle of mediocrity. 

They almost did that Sunday after spotting the Buccaneers an early 10-0 lead. 

Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were magnificent, and the Steelers win the game if Brown doesn’t drop a perfectly thrown deep ball off a flea flicker in the fourth quarter – or if Big Ben doesn’t overthrow the two-time Pro Bowler on a key third down later in the drive. 

“I think every man in that locker [room] feels like we could have done something different to affect the outcome of the game,” Brown said. 

The shame of it for the Steelers if they would have held on to beat the Buccaneers is their schedule set up nicely for them to go on a run. Now they are back to wondering which team will show up on a weekly basis. 

“We’ve got to get off this up-and-down roller coaster ride,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “It’s unpleasant for everybody. We’ve got to be a straight line. We’ve got to get better.”

No matter outcome, Pirates arrive

Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, 9:30 p.m.

Getty Images
Pirates starter Gerrit Cole pitches in the third inning against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Cole tied his career high with 12 strikeouts.


The Pirates lost Sunday, wasting a gem from arguably their best pitcher, leaving him unavailable for an elimination-postseason game at home against an opponent that has finished two of the past four seasons as baseball's champions.

It was a great day.

It was the day the Pirates arrived.

They're not completely there yet. That won't happen until they get to the World Series, which means it might not happen this year.

Still, consistent contenders never emerge overnight. They're not built just through drafting and developing. They grow from experiences.

The Pirates went 17-9 in September, a superb month to cap their first outstanding unofficial second half (39-28) in manager Clint Hurdle's four seasons.

It's no coincidence that happened in the season after their return to the postseason. Having played six postseason games last October, this club was more prepared to finish stronger than it had started (18-26). They knew what real pressure felt like.

Arriving is a process, and it happens before a team wins a championship.

It happens when a team takes a significant step, and sometimes those aren't easy to spot in the moment.

Last season seemed significant at the time, but one playoff appearance after 20 consecutive years of losing only proved the Pirates could put together a good year, and good years are nothing special. They just seem that way when they don't happen very often.

We've witnessed two good years from the Pirates.

They can do better, and Hurdle cited the Ghosts of Greatness Past when acknowledging that Sunday morning.
“We're trying to make history here,” Hurdle said. “Roberto Clemente. Willie Stargell. We walk away from this game, where are we going?”

Going backward is where, had Gerrit Cole not started against the Reds on Sunday afternoon.

I spent most of my teens, my entire 20s and the first half of my 30s watching backward baseball, and I'm over it. Give me a team that tries to go forward.

Give me what the Pirates gave themselves Sunday — a chance to win the division.

Can we just take a breath and think about what could have happened?

The Pirates could have won. The Cardinals could have lost. The division could have been decided in a game between these clubs at St. Louis on Monday.

It was really that simple.

Some factors complicated the situation. Two significant ones included the Reds' Johnny Cueto going for his 20th win against the Pirates, and the Cardinals having the option of starting Adam Wainwright against the baseball-worst Diamondbacks.

The odds weren't in the Pirates favor.

Well, guess what? Odds aren't in their favor against the Giants in the wild-card game Wednesday night, either. There's no sure bet in an elimination game. That's why they were smart to try to win the division.

But nothing pertaining to Wednesday night should have mattered to the Pirates on Sunday morning, anyway.

They did not control their destiny, but their destiny also had not been determined. Cole took the bump at Great American Ball Park knowing only one thing to be true: If the Pirates lost to the Reds, their division-title pursuit was finished.

The Cardinals —– the standard for excellence in National League, not just this Central division — would have done exactly what the Pirates did Sunday. They would have done anything possible to go for the big prize.

Winning mattered. Pirates fans shouldn't overlook that, because so many for so long have been doubters, wondering if winning would ever matter to the Pirates.

Does ownership care? Will management make the right choices? Are these players good enough?

I've asked those questions. You've asked those questions. The Pirates have seemingly been about those questions for a couple of generations. That wasn't the case Sunday morning, when they arrived for their 162nd game of a season that was already guaranteed to be another good year.

Despite Sunday's outcome, anything is still possible when it comes to the biggest prize.

Edinson Volquez is likely going to start in the wild-card game. He might not strike out 12, as Cole did in seven innings Sunday. He might just roll, like Francisco Liriano did in the wild-card game last October.

Volquez will probably give the Pirates a great chance to win. His 1.85 ERA since June 23 is fourth best among major league starters. That includes Giants' wild-card starter Madison Bumgarner, who has a 3.30 ERA over that span.

“We know what it's going to be like on Wednesday, what the Giants are going to have to deal with coming into our ballpark and playing,” second baseman Neil Walker said.

Expect a blacked-out sellout crowd that will make baseball's best ballpark feel like sports' greatest home-field advantage.

“We're excited about that,” Walker said.

They're just not all that satisfied with it.

“Absolutely not,” Walker said.

The wild-card game wasn't good enough for the Pirates on Sunday, and that made it a great day for Pittsburgh baseball.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Slapstick Steelers deserved to lose

Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, 9:18 p.m.

Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu reacts after the Steelers had a third-quarter penalty called against them against the Buccaneers on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, at Heinz Field.

If you looked hard enough Sunday evening, you could practically see Heinz Field blushing in shame.
Has there been a more embarrassing football weekend in that stadium?
First, Akron comes in and does a number on Pitt. That was bad enough. It was a disgrace, actually. But it paled in comparison to what happened Sunday afternoon, when the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers — fresh off a 56-14 squeaker in Atlanta — scored with seven seconds left to hand Mike Tomlin his most humiliating home defeat.
OK, the Oakland game from 2009 might have been worse. But the Steelers committed only four penalties in that game. They committed a mind-blowing 13 for 125 yards Sunday to go with multiple other gaffes.
The real shame would have been the Steelers escaping with a wholly undeserved win.
“The bottom line,” Tomlin said, “is that we are an undisciplined group.”
Who could argue? Such unruliness has become a disturbing pattern with this team. It has extended beyond the field, too, whether it's running backs apparently getting stoned hours before one team flight or the offensive coordinator altogether missing another one.
Should it surprise anyone, then, to see this group flagged for 13 penalties in a single game — including three post-play infractions, the surest sign of a lack of discipline?
“We have to fix it,” Tomlin said, before immediately and accurately amending that statement to this: “I have to fix it. And I will.”
That remains to be seen for a 2-2 team that is supposed to be in the soft part of its schedule.
Tampa Bay was so desperate for offensive help that it signed receiver Louis Murphy off the street five days ago. He proceeded to smoke the puny Steelers secondary for six catches and 99 yards.
Murphy made some big plays for that Oakland team five years ago, and he made a 41-yard catch Sunday to set up Vincent Jackson's winning touchdown.
“Something about this place,” Murphy said. “It's electric.”
Oh yeah? It didn't feel so electric when thousands fled for the exits with seven seconds left. That was just before the Steelers' slapstick final play, which ended with Ben Roethlisberger getting crushed and fumbling after catching a lateral.
It didn't feel so electric in the Steelers locker room, either, where safety Mike Mitchell fairly characterized the mood.
“It stinks. It's horrible. I feel sick,” Mitchell said.
Somebody asked linebacker James Harrison how he felt running out of the tunnel before his first game back. Harrison returned a glare that could have melted half of Antarctica.
“Don't really care about how I felt running out of the tunnel,” he said. “We just lost a game.”
If I had any nerve, I would have asked Tomlin what he thought of his team's execution. Maybe he would have answered the way old John McKay did when somebody asked the same question during the Buccaneers' winless 1976 campaign.
“I'm in favor of it,” McKay said.
At times, the Steelers played like the '76 Bucs. It started on the first series, when Cody Wallace lost Gerald McCoy for a sack on second down and nobody blocked Michael Johnson on third down, resulting in a Roethlisberger fumble and, soon enough, a Tampa Bay touchdown.
From there, amid fits of competency that vaulted them to touchdown leads in each half, the Steelers seemed determined to make sure the Bucs retained hope.
• Defensive lineman Cam Thomas made the biggest play on Tampa Bay's second scoring drive: a 15-yard facemask penalty.
• Justin Brown dropped a touchdown pass. What the Steelers see in him, as opposed to Lance Moore, remains a deep mystery.
• Antonio Brown dropped a potential huge gainer on a flea flicker. A few plays later, Roethlisberger missed Brown on what likely would have been a game-clinching bomb.
• On Antonio Brown's first touchdown, he felt the need to spin the ball, perform a dance and flop forward. That cost the Steelers 15 yards.
• Steelers punter Brad Wing delivered a 29-yard stinker to set up the Bucs' winning drive.
• Dri Archer finally had a chance to make a play — he was about to return a kickoff — only to see LeGarrette Blount block his exit route. Thanks, LeGarrette.
• Troy Polamalu helped along two Bucs drives with facemask penalties.
• Jason Worilds contributed all of one tackle.
• Maurkice Pouncey was called for an illegal snap to hurt the Steelers' second-to-last possession. Of course, the Steelers also decided to run the ball on third-and-5 after taking the risk to pass it (and complete it) on second down.
“We kicked our own butt,” Tomlin said.
Maybe the coach should seize on that theme and kick a whole bunch more of it this week.
The mighty Jacksonville Jaguars await.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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Steelers must stop beating themselves with undisciplined play

By Scott Brown
September 28, 2014

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sep 28, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) catches a seven yard touchdown pass against Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen (28) during the first quarter at Heinz Field. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

PITTSBURGH – The smile that comes easily to Maurkice Pouncey was nowhere to be found as the Pittsburgh Steelers center sat in a hushed locker room late Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. 

“This one hits you,” Pouncey said after the Steelers couldn’t protect a fourth-quarter lead in a 27-24 loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The loss particularly weighed on Pouncey, as he committed a costly penalty with the Steelers needing just a lone first down to close out the Bucs. 

It came with the Steelers nursing a 24-20 lead with 1 minute, 40 seconds left in the game and facing a second-and-8 at their own 16-yard line. 

Pouncey was flagged for an illegal snap, and the 5-yard penalty resulted in a punt two plays later and placed the onus for closing out the Buccaneers on the defense. It couldn’t do it. 

Head coach Mike Tomlin said he never received an explanation for why Pouncey was hit with the Steelers’ 13th and final penalty of the game. Pouncey said he was told he had moved the ball too much before snapping it to Ben Roethlisberger

“That’s on me,” the three-time Pro Bowl center said. “As a center you can’t have that, and I take full responsibility.” 

Pouncey’s accountability was refreshing. 

And it had better resonate with his teammates if the Steelers want to avoid a third consecutive 8-8 season. 

[+] EnlargeAntonio Brown
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesLe'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown each were flagged for post-play penalties in the Steelers' loss to Tampa Bay.
No one, it seems, is taking enough accountability for the penalties that have plagued the Steelers. It cost them dearly in a game they should have won. 

The Steelers piled up 125 penalty yards, and six of their flags were of the 15-yard variety. Two of those penalties were for taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct by running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown, respectively. 

Another unsportsmanlike penalty was called on defensive end Cameron Heyward, who took issue with a missed holding call on Doug Martin’s 3-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. 

The Steelers are averaging 11 penalties per game, and Tomlin acknowledged after a 37-19 win at Carolina last Sunday that the rash of flags would become “problematic” if his team didn’t start playing smarter. 

That explained why Tomlin was so upset and called his players “undisciplined.” 

“The defining factor in determining the outcome of that football game is that we were way too highly penalized,” Tomlin said. “It’s ridiculous.” 

His players largely agreed with him. 

But they also said the usual after a loss, that they have to watch the film from the game and make the necessary corrections. 

That translates to blah, blah, blah, blah for frustrated Steelers fans, because some penalties don't need film to correct. 

“Post-play penalties are ridiculous,” Tomlin said. “That we have full control over.” 

The players would do well to follow the lead of Pouncey and hold themselves more accountable for penalties. 

“It’s all on the players,” Pouncey said, “It’s not like [coaches] are calling like, ‘Hey, hold on this play’ or 'hit the guy late.’ They coach us the right way. We’ve got to play the right way.”

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Buccaneers vs. Steelers preview

September 26, 2014

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have history, among other things, working against them when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday for a 1 p.m. ET game.
The Buccaneers have lost eight of nine games against the Steelers, with their only victory coming in 1998, when Pittsburgh still played at Three Rivers Stadium.
The Buccaneers are off to an 0-3 start and will be decided underdogs after getting clobbered 56-14 last Thursday night at Atlanta. The Steelers, meanwhile, are coming off an impressive 37-19 victory at Carolina, which beat Tampa Bay in the first week of the season.
ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the game.
Brown: Pat, the Buccaneers aren’t making me look too smart. Not hard, I know, but I predicted them to be that team that goes from worst to first in its division. It’s early, but the Buccaneers look like they could have a long season ahead of them. Did new coach Lovie Smith inherit a rebuilding project or are the Buccaneers a better team than their record indicates?
Yasinskas: Scott, you're not the only one who expected more from the Bucs. I predicted a .500 season and thought they might even be able to do a little better than that. I really thought new coach Lovie Smith would turn things around quickly. So much for that. I'd like to say the Bucs are better than their record indicates, but I can't. What happened in Atlanta was the ugliest defeat I've ever seen a team have. The Bucs simply looked like they weren't even in the same league as the Falcons. And I don't see Tampa Bay suddenly having some sort of revival against the Steelers. The Bucs are a bad team and they will be without starting quarterback Josh McCown. I'd like to say it can't get worse than it did in Atlanta, but it might get worse against the Steelers.
I was very impressed with Pittsburgh's win over Carolina. The Steelers looked like a complete football team to me. Do they have any weaknesses that Tampa Bay might be able to exploit?
Brown: The defense has injury issues, as the Steelers will be without three starters this week: outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Ike Taylor. The Buccaneers’ size at wide receiver could be a problem for the Steelers, as Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin caught eight passes for 113 yards and a touchdown against them last Sunday. And I need to see more than one good game against the Panthers to say that the Steelers can consistently stop the run. Carolina abandoned the run early and did not employ the zone-blocking or stretch plays that have given the Steelers problems. A healthy Doug Martin will test the Steelers, and Bobby Rainey looks like he can play when he isn’t fumbling.
Pat, I was a little perplexed when the Buccaneers signed McCown and didn’t give Mike Glennon a chance to battle him for the starting job. Glennon seemed to show promise last season as a rookie, and McCown has been a journeyman. What is your take on the Buccaneers’ quarterback situation, and with Glennon starting against the Steelers, what are his strengths and weaknesses?
Yasinskas: Glennon did some very good things, despite some very difficult circumstances, as a rookie last year. I also was surprised he didn't at least get a chance to compete for the starting job. But Lovie Smith had history with McCown in Chicago, and the coach wanted a veteran to run his offense efficiently. Smith has said that Glennon is the team's quarterback of the future and I think the future could be now. Glennon's main positive point is a very strong arm and the Bucs need to let him use that. Glennon has a huge receiving corps, and the Bucs need to take advantage of their size. Glennon's other strength is his intelligence. He's not going to make a lot of mental mistakes. I think Glennon can be just as -- if not more -- efficient than McCown.
So how much are all those injuries going to hurt the Steelers?
Brown: Cornerback could be an issue for the Steelers, especially if the Buccaneers can get them into their nickel defense. I don’t like the matchup between the Steelers' cornerbacks and the big, physical Buccaneers wide receivers. When the Steelers go to the nickel,Antwon BlakeBrice McCain or B.W. Webb will play right cornerback if William Gay doesn't play there. If Gay, who is starting for Taylor, stays at right cornerback in the nickel package, McCain will likely play in the slot. What should also be worrisome to the Steelers is if they sustain more injuries on defense against the Buccaneers. They are stretched thin at a couple of positions and their top reserve at outside linebacker is James Harrison, who officially retired three weeks ago today.
Pat, I can’t figure out the NFL, so anyone who thinks the Steelers are a lock in this game is nuts. What has to happen for the Buccaneers to pull off an upset at Heinz Field?
Yasinskas: Something pretty close to a miracle. The Bucs are a bad team that likely will be playing with a backup quarterback. I've seen nothing out of the Bucs that leads me to believe they have any chance against the Steelers. But, getting back to your question, I'll give you an answer. It's hypothetical, but the Bucs have to play the perfect game to have any chance at a victory. They need to play the way Lovie Smith has designed this team: a great defense and an efficient offense. We haven't seen the Bucs play that way yet, but maybe they'll shock us.
The thing that jumped out at me Sunday night was Pittsburgh's running game. The Steelers ran the ball exceptionally well against a Carolina front seven that I think is one of the best in the league. Did Pittsburgh just get lucky and take advantage of the lead, or is this the second coming of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier?
Brown: It’s too early to put Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount in the class of Harris and Bleier, but they are on their way to giving the Steelers the best running tandem they have had in years -- and certainly the top one since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007. Bell does everything and he has emerged as a dynamic runner. I actually thought Blount might be the Steelers’ most talented runner going into the season, and he is more than just a big back. He has excellent feet, which make him anything but a plodder. Blount ripped off a 51-yard run last Sunday against the Panthers, adding to the 81-yard gain Bell had earlier in the game.
The Steelers rushed for 160 of their 264 yards when the Panthers were within 10 points or fewer. They pretty much ran the ball whenever they wanted to against a really good front seven that was dominated by the Steelers’ offensive line. The line and the backs should take a lot of confidence into Sunday.