Monday, August 31, 2015

Steelers defense needs improvement and quickly

By Chris Bradford |
August 31, 2015

Steelers vs. Bills
Bills wide receiver Marcus Thigpen (11) runs from Steelers defender L.J. Fort (54) during the first half of a preseason game on Saturday in Orchard Park, N.Y. (Bill Wippert/AP)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Rex Ryan has never staked his reputation as one of the NFL's great offensive minds and the quartet of quarterbacks the Buffalo Bills' bombastic coach employed weren't named Jim Kelly, Jack Kemp, Joe Ferguson or Doug Flutie.
Could have fooled the Steelers on Saturday.
Ryan's Bills, with E.J. Manuel, Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor and Matt Simms under center, were able to shred the Steelers' porous defense, at will, in a 43-19 win at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
If the penultimate preseason game served as the final dress rehearsal for the regular season, as it traditionally does, the Steelers didn't look ready for primetime on Sept. 10 when they'll face defending Super Bowl champion New England at Foxoboro, no matter who the Patriots quarterback might be.
Buffalo's four signal callers, none of which had yet been named the starter, completed an alarming 30 of 33 passes (91 percent) for 386 yards and three touchdowns, to say nothing of the Bills' 156 rushing yards on 35 carries.
It wasn't just the second and third team defense that bowed. It was the starters and, perhaps even more worrisome, players that were supposed to be making cases for roster spots.
"Some of those guys looked like they were just walking dead," said coach Mike Tomlin, who will pare the roster from 90 down to 75 by 4 p.m. on Tuesday. "We've got to analyze that, and keep those committed to fighting. Some of that stuff was quite disturbing. Not the type of performance we're looking for."
Needless to say, it was a disappointing effort after showing some promise a week earlier against Green Bay, the NFL's top-ranked offense in 2014. The Steelers registered six sacks against the Packers but managed just one (Arthur Moats in coverage) against the Bills, a unit that ranked just 18th last season.
"It was unacceptable," said defensive end Cam Heyward. "We understand there's going to be mistakes but we have to be better. Hopefully we can grow from this."
Certainly there were some mitigating factors working against the Steelers, most notably the absences of starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and safety Mike Mitchell.
"Even if people were playing just not get cut we're still out there playing football and you got to go out there and be a competitor," said safety Shamarko Thomas.
Still, there's little reason to believe that one or any of the aforementioned injured players might be ready to go in 11 days time when the Steelers take on Tom Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo and the Patriots. Surely, Rob Gronkowski is drooling, more than usual, at the prospect of going against the Steelers secondary.
The Steelers ranked 27th against the pass last season and are trying to implement a Cover-2 scheme into their defense. The hope is that, while it might yield some short yards underneath, it will prevent the types of big plays on the outside that dogged them in 2014, when they gave up 50 plays of 20 or more yards.
Against the Bills, the Steelers surrendered nine plays of 19 or more yards, six of them in the air, including a Manuel to Charles Clay strike for a 67-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
It also marked the second straight week that the Steelers had given up a touchdown on their opponents' opening drive. The Bills required just three plays, 43 yards and 1:05 to go up early on Saturday. Green Bay scored in the first 5:06 a week ago.
Whether the result of an already too long training camp enters its sixth week or omen of things to come, the Steelers will have scant time to right the ship. The Steelers' final preseason game -- vs. Carolina on Thursday -- is just four days away. Obviously, the Steelers (1-3) would like to get the bad taste out of their mouths.

"In a couple Thursdays from now, we'll be on the clock so we're going to get better and get solid before that," Tomlin said.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ramirez homers, Pirates stay hot in 4-3 win over Rockies

By Will Graves
August 29, 2015

Ramirez homers, Pirates stay hot in 4-3 win over Rockies

Pittsburgh Pirates' Aramis Ramirez hits a three-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Aramis Ramirez can't really describe it but he can sense it, the feeling that permeates a clubhouse during one of those summers that offers the promise of an even more exciting fall.

Pitching Details

At the moment, the Pittsburgh Pirates are swimming in it.
The veteran third baseman mashed a three-run homer off Chris RusinJ.A. Happ won his third straight start and the Pirates improved to a season-best 30 games over .500 following a 4-3 win over Colorado on Saturday night.
Entering the final weeks of an 18-year career that has produced nearly 400 home runs but zero World Series rings, the three-time All-Star is trying his best to enjoy each improbable moment as they pile one upon the other with no signs of abating.
''It's fun to be in a pennant race,'' Ramirez said. ''That's what you play for as a player, especially for myself being my last year. I've got something to play for every single day, it couldn't be better than that.''
And at the moment, few teams in baseball are as hot as the Pirates. Pittsburgh is 14-3 over its last 17 games and 79-49 heading into the last day of August, heady territory for a franchise that won 79 games in a season twice between 1993 and 2012.

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''The goal is to win the division,'' manager Clint Hurdle said. ''We're doing some things that have some significance I'll be mindful of later. We're in second place and we want to get to first place.''
The Pirates remained within 3 1-2 games of first-place St. Louis in the hyper-competitive NL Central behind another strong performance from Happ. Brought in to bolster the back end of the rotation, Happ (7-7) won his third straight decision after giving up one run and five hits in 5 2-3 innings and is 3-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his last four starts. Mark Melancon survived a rare rocky ninth to collect his major-league leading 43rd save.
''(Happ's) confidence is in as good a place as it has been all year,'' Hurdle said. ''He's fit in with the team. It has embraced him.''
Happ wasn't exactly crisp but managed to work his way out of a tough spot in the third with minimal damage and received a boost from reliever Arquimedes Caminero when the Rockies put two runners on with two outs in the sixth.
Caminero extended his scoreless streak to 17 1-3 innings after getting Nick Hundley to ground out to third to end the threat in the sixth and breezing through the Rockies in the seventh.
Melancon moved into a tie with Jose Mesa for the second-most saves in a season in club history even though he was pushed around in the ninth. Ben Paulsen led off with a single and Hundley followed with a towering two-run homer to left. Brandon Barnes singled to put the tying run at first but pinch-hitter Daniel Descalso popped out and Charlie Blackmon lined into a double play to end it.
Hundley, Paulsen and Barnes had two hits each for the Rockies. Rusin (4-7), tagged for a career-high 11 runs in two innings of a loss to the Mets last Saturday, allowed just one runner past second over his final five innings but received little help as the Rockies fell to 2-6 in their last eight games.
''Our team didn't win so it is what it is,'' Rusin said. ''As a pitcher you want to pitch your team to win and I wasn't able to do that.''
Pittsburgh raced to a quick lead when Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen singled with one out and Ramirez took a hanging curveball and put it well into the bleachers in left, his first home run at PNC Park as a member of the Pirates since July 20, 2003.
The Pirates made it a point to avoid a splashy move and instead focus on productive if low-profile veterans at the deadline. The moves have paid off handsomely so far. Pittsburgh is 19-7 in August and surging toward September and beyond.
''We have areas we all know we need to improve on in the season,'' Hurdle said. ''We all strive to play our best ball the later it gets.''
Colorado: 1B Justin Morneau went 1 for 2 for Double-A New Britain on Friday night, his first action since going on the DL on May 13 with a neck injury. The 2014 NL batting champion played four innings at first base, with Rockies manager Walt Weiss calling the performance promising. ... RHP Kyle Kendrick will start one of Tuesday's doubleheader games against Arizona. Kendrick has been on the DL since getting hurt against St. Louis on July 31.
The series concludes Sunday when Colorado's Jorge De La Rosa faces Pittsburgh's Charlie Morton. De La Rosa is 5-4 on the road with a 3.51 ERA this season. Morton is 5-1 at PNC Park and is 2-1 with a 3.62 ERA in six starts against the Rockies.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Harrison RBI single lifts Pirates over Rockies 5-3

By Will Graves
August 29, 2015

Harrison RBI single lifts Pirates over Rockies 5-3

Pittsburgh Pirates' pinch-hitter Josh Harrison hits a pitch from Colorado Rockies reliever Scott Oberg during the eighth inning to drive in Francisco Cervelli and break the tie in a baseball game, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, in Pittsburgh. The Pirates won 5-3. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gregory Polanco saw one of the fastest players in baseball standing at third and knew there was little margin for error.

Pitching Details

A month ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder might not have had a shot at throwing out Colorado's Jose Reyes. Now things are different. The talented, but still raw, right fielder is maturing nearly as quickly as his surging team is racking up victories.
Polanco's throw easily beat Reyes to the plate to preserve a tie in the eighth and he added an insurance run after Josh Harrison put the Pirates in front in the bottom of the inning as Pittsburgh escaped with a 5-3 victory Friday night.
''He's refining his routine through his practice, and he is nailing it in games,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. ''In high-leverage situations he is nailing them.''
The 23-year-old finished with three hits, an RBI that provided the final margin and two outfield assists. The first caught Nick Hundley in a rundown between first and second in the fifth. The second was a low laser that gave catcher Francisco Cervelli plenty of time to tag Reyes as the four-time All-Star tried to slide by.
''I just tried to put a good throw, throw it in the right direction, that's the first thing,'' Polanco said. ''You try to throw it anywhere else, you've got no chance.''
The momentum helped carry the Pirates to their 13th win in their last 16 games as they try to keep pace with St. Louis in the hyper competitive NL Central. Harrison came on as a pinch-hitter and lined a single off Scott Oberg (3-3) to score Cervelli and put Pittsburgh in front, the first run given up by the Colorado bullpen in 18 2-3 innings.
Polanco followed with a single as Pittsburgh improved to 20-4 against the NL West, though his arm is becoming as effective as his bat at times.
''I'm sure the scouting report says something,'' Harrison said. ''They keep testing him. But if they keep testing him they'll get the same result and I'm cool with it.''
Tony Watson (3-1) earned the win thanks to Polanco's throw. Mark Melancon worked a perfect ninth for his major league-leading 42nd save. Pittsburgh relievers have won 18 straight decisions since last taking a loss on June 25.
Reyes hit his third home run of the season for Colorado and manager Walt Weiss had no problem with Reyes' decision to dart for home on the shallow fly ball by Nolan Arenado.
''I was glad he took off, it took a great throw by Polanco,'' Weiss said. ''It was right on the money and it wasn't real deep but I thought certainly deep enough for Reyes to take a shot.''
Carlos Gonzalez added his 31st homer but the Rockies dropped their sixth straight game to the Pirates at PNC Park.
Colorado rookie starter Jon Gray improved over his miserable start against the New York Mets last week, when the former first-round draft pick gave up seven runs without getting out of the second inning.
While he was hardly crisp - he went over his initial 75-pitch allotment by throwing 89 before leaving with one out in the fifth - he avoided major trouble by striking out Neal Walker with the bases loaded to end the third.
''I was OK with it,'' Gray said. ''It was a lot of stuff I can't control but I think I was battling pretty well.''
Pittsburgh improved to 11-0 in Francisco Liriano's last 11 starts since being on the other end of Washington's Max Scherzer's no-hitter on June 20, the second-longest unbeaten stretch by a Pittsburgh starter in 42 years. He had no major worries until Reyes' two-run shot off the foul pole in the fifth and a long solo homer to center by Gonzalez in the sixth and leaving with a no-decision.
Rockies: 1B Justin Morneau was scheduled to play five innings Friday night for Double-A New Britain as he continues his slow return from concussion-like symptoms and a cervical neck strain. The 34-year-old four-time All-Star hasn't appeared in a Colorado uniform since going on the DL in May. ... Colorado called up LHP Jason Gurka and sent RHP Tommy Kahnle to Triple-A Albuquerque.
Pirates: RHP A.J. Burnett is scheduled to throw three innings off the mound Sunday as he continues his comeback from a flexor strain in his right elbow. Burnett worked some curveballs into the mix during a session in Miami on Thursday but Hurdle said it's too early to tell when the 38-year-old will be available.
Pittsburgh's J.A. Happ will make his fifth start for the Pirates since coming over at the trade deadline from Seattle. The 31-year-old is 2-1 with a 2.08 ERA with Pittsburgh and is 1-0 with a 1.89 ERA in four career appearances against Colorado. Rockies starter Chris Rusin is coming off the worst performance of his career, giving up 11 runs and 12 hits in a loss to the New York Mets on Aug. 22.
Follow Will Graves at

The Pirates pitcher who succeeds by not throwing strikes

August 28, 2015
If only they didn’t swing. That should be the strategy against Francisco Liriano. Lope into the batter’s box, sling bat over shoulder and play statue. Stare at every ball that whizzes by. And chances are, if temptation doesn’t take over, if the almost pheromonal scent of Liriano’s pitches can’t cajole a swing, the exercise will end in a leisurely stroll to first base.
Because in a pitching world whose mission boils down to a two-word statement repeated ad nauseam – “throw strikes” – Liriano serves as the literal and figurative wild child. Nobody in baseball delivers fewer pitches in the strike zone than the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 31-year-old left-hander, and his mastery of effective wildness has grown into wild effectiveness.
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Francisco Liriano gets whiffs 31.5 percent of the time a batter offers at a pitch. (Getty)
Francisco Liriano gets whiffs 31.5 percent of the time a batter offers at a pitch. (Getty)
In the last 10 years, since baseball started tracking the strike zone through its PITCHf/x system, only one time has a pitcher thrown fewer baseballs in the zone than Liriano’s 36.8 percent this year: Liriano last season, at 35 percent. That’s exactly what it sounds like: nearly two out of every three pitches Liriano throws would be a ball were it not for the lure of his sinker, slider and changeup, the finest three-ingredient combo since peanut butter, jelly and bread.
“He’s got two of the most dynamic off-speed pitches in the game,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “And he has good enough stuff that he still gets swings even when it’s not close.”
And that, above everything, is the beauty of Francisco Liriano, whose career has run the gamut of wunderkind to Tommy John victim to early-career flameout to rebirth and where he is today, starting Friday for the NL wild card-leading Pirates against Colorado: someone reliable despite a relationship with the strike zone that is anything but.
“He has learned how to pitch,” Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said. “Every once in a while, he’ll have a flashback where he thinks he can pitch 97. But he’s more disciplined now.”
Whatever discipline Liriano may have, it’s the lack of discipline from modern hitters that has allowed him to thrive. As recently as 2004, according to data from Baseball Info Solutions, hitters swung at 16.6 percent of pitches outside the zone. This season, they hack at 31.2 percent. And while the contact rate has jumped significantly, too, the willingness of hitters to expand their zones doesn’t just give pitchers like Liriano the license to keep the ball outside of it. Hitters practically invite them to miss.
It helps, of course, when a pitcher brings the caliber of stuff Liriano hauls with him to the mound. Few in baseball can match it, so they opt for strikes. The average starter throws 45.4 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. Carlos Silva once spent more than 65 percent of the time there, and this season’s league leader, Phil Hughes, is at nearly 55 percent. They shared a common quality: Both got hit. A lot.
Nobody generates more misses on swings than Liriano, who gets whiffs 31.5 percent of the time a batter offers at a pitch. This is, no doubt, because so many of Liriano’s pitches are unhittable, a combination of movement, deception and a philosophy that says pounding the strike zone is totally overrated.
Perhaps it’s just coincidence three of the most analytically inclined teams – the Chicago Cubs,Houston Astros and Pirates – rank first, second and third in pitches outside the zone. Then again, the best pitching staff in baseball, St. Louis, ranks 22nd, and perhaps the scariest in the playoffs, theNew York Mets, are 29th. As with Liriano, teams may just play to their pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses. Turning him into Greg Maddux never was a possibility, so the Pirates rehabbed him in other ways.
“It was on and off, up and down after the Tommy John surgery,” Liriano said. “But I believed in myself, and in my mind I always thought I’d be able to do this. I just needed to figure out how.”
Encouraging Liriano to almost completely ditch his four-seam fastball was one tweak. Refining his changeup – a pitch he throws exclusively to right-handed hitters – was another. And because he only offers two pitches to left-handed hitters, Liriano this year wanted to focus on keeping the ball as far away from them as possible while tricking them into thinking they were offering at good pitches.
Already this season Liriano has thrown more low-and-outside pitches to lefties than either of the last two years. Fifty-nine at-bats have ended on a pitch in that location this season. Two have gone for hits. Which isn’t all that different from last year (3 for 47) or the year before (3 for 50) or even when Liriano was terrible in 2012 (0 for 45). It’s more the recognition that hitters are vulnerable and not taking advantage of their inadequacies is a monumental waste.
Every spring, Liriano and Searage sit down and come up with a plan to attack certain parts of his game and make sure they’re ready. They study video from years past and figure out whether the changes will work, because Searage almost never tries to teach new things midseason, leery about the nature of competition overwhelming whatever knowledge may be gained.
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Francisco Liriano's strikeouts per nine innings the last three years: 9.11, 9.70 and 9.69. (Getty)
Francisco Liriano's strikeouts per nine innings the last three years: 9.11, 9.70 and 9.69. (Getty)
“You want freedom of mind for execution of a pitch,” Searage said. “He can throw any pitch in any count at any time. You can’t sit on one friggin’ thing. You can’t sit on his fastball, you can’t sit on his slider and you can’t sit on his changeup. Because once you do, he’s starting to realize he can read guys.”
Already the mind games tilt in Liriano’s favor. Think about it: He doesn’t exactly forgo the called strike, but the action on his slider and changeup in particular turn hitters into such globs of jelly that he doesn’t need to pound the zone. His ERAs over the past three years (3.02, 3.38 and 3.23 this season) back up the premise. His strikeouts per nine innings (9.11, 9.70 and 9.69) are an invitation for other pitchers with big stuff to trust their abilities, embrace walks – Liriano averages 3.3 per nine this year, his lowest since 2010 but still 78th among 88 qualified starters – and paint outside the lines.
“I try to see what they’re looking for and give them something else,” Liriano said. “I want to mix it up as much as I can and not stick to one pitch like I used to, throwing slider, slider, slider, slider.”
It’s not just the swings and misses. Nobody in baseball generates weak contact like Liriano. On every play, Baseball Info Solutions uses a timer to judge how long the ball took to reach the fielder. It then takes the numbers and breaks them into three categories: soft, medium and hard contact. Last season, Liriano’s 24.7 percent soft contact tied Johnny Cueto for the best in the big leagues. This year, nobody comes close to Liriano’s 27.3 percent.
So, batters can’t hit Liriano, and when they manage to, they can’t hit him hard. It’s no wonder the Pirates are elated to have him back at a very reasonable $39 million through the 2017 season. They were also interested in re-signing Edinson Volquez, another Pirates reclamation project, though bringing Liriano back allowed them to see him through.
They get to witness more than half his balls in play scoot along the ground and strikeouts pile up and what at first seemed like a perilous balancing act now play out with jarring regularity. Every time he’s on the mound, Francisco Liriano sticks out his tongue and blows a raspberry at convention – and, by proxy, at hitters.
He dares them to do the right thing, to lay off the vixens that are his pitches, so desirable and dangerous, because he knows the truth of baseball today and of the late-career success that seems unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.
They never do.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Steelers stopping themselves with suspensions

Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, 10:36 p.m.
Martavis Bryant
It has been said many times, most recently by Le'Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger, that the only team capable of stopping the powerful Steelers offense is the Steelers themselves.
They're doing a pretty good job of it so far.
I believe the term is self-sabotage.
Bell essentially suspended himself by smoking marijuana and driving on the day of a business trip last August. The Steelers had a preseason game the next day in Philadelphia. He'll miss the first two regular-season games.
Now along comes second-year receiver Martavis Bryant, a hugely important player who outdid Bell by getting himself suspended four games for apparently violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Bryant has appealed the suspension, so I suppose there's a chance the league screwed something up. Wouldn't be the first time. If it holds, however, this can only be termed a case of the Steelers stopping the Steelers.
Throw in the lousy luck of losing star center Maurkice Pouncey to another major injury, and this offense suddenly looks mortal. You wonder what's coming next, with the starters slated to see significant action Saturday in Buffalo against a rambunctious defense.
At this rate, Mike Vick will be throwing to Randy Moss when the season opens Sept. 10 in Foxborough.
Speaking of which, if I'm Mike Tomlin, I'm approaching the rest of the ridiculous preseason with one goal in mind: keep my offensive stars healthy. I'm changing my plan to extensively use Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown on Saturday.
What possibly could be gained by giving Brown or Bell even one more touch before Sept. 10?
The challenge already is significant. No offense to Cody Wallace (Pouncey's likely replacement), Darrius Heyward-Bey (potentially in for Bryant) or DeAngelo Williams (in for Bell), but the Steelers are staring at the likelihood of opening their season without 19 touchdowns and a perennial All-Pro center from 2014.
That's really, really bad news in a year when the defense is riddled with issues, the latest being another injury to safety Mike Mitchell.
Don't minimize the potential impact of losing Bryant for a quarter of the season. He changed everything last season.
The Steelers were sputtering along at slightly more than 20 points per game when Bryant was activated for Game 7. They averaged more than 30 thereafter. Bryant provided a big-time deep threat (21.1 yards per catch) and a viable red-zone target. He scored eight touchdowns on just 26 catches — and he seemed poised to kick it up a notch this season.
He still might, but if the substance in question was marijuana, then Bryant is a multiple offender (only multiple violations could trigger a suspension). And that makes you wonder if another transgression would make Bryant the next Josh Gordon, the wildly talented Cleveland Browns receiver who can't get out of his own way.
Kind of makes you wonder, too, if concerns about Bryant prompted the Steelers to draft Sammie Coates in the third round. That seemed like such a luxury pick at the time. This offense certainly didn't need a rookie. It was ready to roll.
It looked unstoppable.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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