Tuesday, January 31, 2017

James Harrison removes drama, wants to wreak havoc in 2017

Jeremy FowlerESPN Staff Writerhttp://www.espn.com/blog/pittsburgh-steelersJanuary 30, 2017
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PITTSBURGH -- As if it wasn't enough for James Harrison to tell reporters "I'm not done" after the AFC title game loss to the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher doubled down last week on social media.
"38 years old and coming back for more," said Harrison on Instagram, a message accompanied with an action shot above the "I'm not done" quote.
This isn't a formal declaration that Harrison will play in 2017, but he sure sounds like a man ready to tackle a 15th NFL season.
And Pittsburgh is still the most sensible team for the pending free agent.
It's hard to blame him for returning. Harrison was on a late-season tear with 7.5 sacks in his last 11 games. His combination of skill and power showed up in playoff matchups against the Miami Dolphins' Brandon Albert and the Kansas City ChiefsEric Fisher. In a 36-17 loss to New England, Harrison didn't record a sack but was also asked to drop into coverage often.
Pro Football Focus says Harrison is "still a one-man wrecking crew," and that's a year after PFF labeled Harrison the seventh-best pass-rusher from the 3-4 outside linebacker spot.
With Jarvis Jones unlikely to return, pass-rusher seems like a logical positional target in the first few rounds of the Steelers' draft. But with Harrison, the team can enjoy starter-caliber production while it takes another year to stabilize the future opposite linebacker Bud Dupree.
Perhaps Harrison could re-unite with Dick LeBeau in Tennessee or consider all options, but he's a Steelers great, and Steelers greats typically like finishing their careers in Pittsburgh.
Even Dupree, when asked about the defense improving in 2017, cited the need to "get 'Deebo' back."
"I think we are all not surprised by what he was able to do, because he is James," coach Mike Tomlin said. "But we were pleased with what he was able to do and provide us with. We are open to that discussion for sure."
And here's the crazy thing: Considering the production, Harrison's $1.25-million salary was a serious bargain last season. He might ask the Steelers to sweeten that deal.
Just in time for his 39th birthday in May.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Was the NHL's Top 100 simply a popularity contest? Evgeni Malkin's omission makes it look that way

By Brian Metzer
January 30, 2017
Image result for evgeni malkin 2017
Nothing polarizes groups of people like a “best of” list.
Anytime an individual or group comes together to decide the top, the best, or most outstanding of something, there are going to be omissions that lead to great debates.
The '100 Greatest NHL Players' announced Friday during a gala in Los Angeles as part the NHL’s All-Star celebration was no different.
The list was compiled by, per the league's website, "a blue-ribbon panel comprised of distinguished members of the hockey community -- including executives, media members and NHL alumni -- selected the list of esteemed players." I can assure you that no one from the Penguins or local media was included in this process, or at least it seems that way based on one notable omission -- Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin was forced to miss the All-Star weekend due to an injury suffered during a game last week, so he didn’t have to have his nose rubbed in it in person, but not being included had to sting.
Not only is he among the best NHL players ever born in his home country of Russia, but he’s put together an impeccable list of accomplishments. The Penguins put out a handy infograph on Saturday that broke it all down.
He is one of only three NHL players (Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr -- both on the list) to win two Stanley Cup championships, two Art Ross Trophies, a Hart Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award and a Calder Trophy.
Malkin added a Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP during the 2009 Stanley Cup run.
It might not have been as shocking if we didn’t hear the names of current Chicago Blackhawks Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews called during the ceremony. They have won three Stanley Cups, but their individual accomplishments pale in comparison to Malkin’s.
The Stanley Cups seem to have been the springboard that they needed, but that is more of a team accomplishment. The selection committee seemed to weigh championships heavier than any individual accolades, as evidenced by some other omissions.
Malkin has rolled up 814 career points in just 691 games, second among active players in points-per-game average (1.18) and 14th all time. That number beats retired greats Pat Lafontaine, Eric Lindros and Dennis Savard (all made the list). We should mention that on average, Malkin has Kane beat in just about every statistic.
One reason for the omission could be the team Malkin plays for. Nine current or former Penguins made the top 100, which could have worked against Malkin, because he is often held up to Sidney Crosby and Lemieux by comparison.
Crosby and Lemieux are ahead of him in just about every category and it’s easy for him to get lost in the shuffle.
From a league standpoint, it is a lot easier to explain why Malkin was left off when Crosby and Lemieux were front and center in L.A. taking part in the celebration. They were hugely celebrated throughout the weekend. They also had multiple members of the franchise fraternity with them.
Kane and Toews didn’t have seven others to shield their omission from the list, and leaving off two players who’ve won their Cups inside the last decade could have been a PR nightmare.
Then again, there were 15 others from the Blackhawks included. The Blackhawks are an original-six franchise and were represented by 17 players on the list, which eliminates the above rationale.
There really is no excuse for leaving off a player who has accomplished more than many of his peers and countless retired members of the list. His exclusion comes close to invalidating the list, making it seem like a popularity contest put together by a biased group that seemed to consider large markets, Stanley Cup dynasties and media darlings above all.
Those types might overlook Malkin because he hasn’t always been as available to the media as they would have liked. He hasn’t done things on their terms or been willing to play many of the games that media darlings tend to.
Much of what he’s done to be a great teammate and to at times shoulder the burden of being a mouthpiece during tough times would have been lost of those who compiled the list because they haven’t regularly covered the team or the player.
When they do come to Pittsburgh, the spotlight has shined on Crosby, while Malkin has gone about his business under the radar.
Make no mistake: Malkin is far from the only omission, here are a few others that have inexplicable been left off of the list.
The San Jose Sharks Joe Thornton ranks 24th all-time in points with 1,372 and 13th in assists. He’s won a Hart trophy, but has no Stanley Cups, which has already proven to be a zinger in terms of selection.
Former Penguin Jarome Iginla was left off, even though he scored 30 or more goals in 12 straight seasons, including 52 goals in 2001-02. He’s scored 600 goals and 1,200 points and still adding to it as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. Again, no Stanley Cup clearly hurt him.
Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins has one Norris Trophy and was a finalist six times over the course of his career. He’s been one of the most dominant defenders of his generation and has one Stanley Cup.
The Blackhawks have their own snub in goaltender Ed Belfour. His 484 wins rank third all-time. He won the Calder Trophy, two Vezina Trophies and four William Jennings Trophies, but it wasn’t enough to get him on the list.
Lastly, Dale Hawerchuk of the Winnpeg Jets, who boasted a rookie season that saw him score 53 goals and 130 points in 1984-85. He has a career points-per-game-average of 1.18, placing him ahead of Lafontaine.

Sidney Crosby Stands Out as the New All-Stars Gather


January 28, 2017

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Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin at the 2017 NHL Skills Competition (Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Once known as Sid the Kid, Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby now takes the ice with a reputation simply as “the man.”

Crosby, 29, continues to shine the brightest in a hockey skyline illuminated by young players like Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, who will be joining Crosby at Sunday’s N.H.L. All-Star Game here.

On Friday night, Crosby, six months after winning his second Stanley Cup with the Penguins, was one of the six active players chosen for the N.H.L.’s 100 greatest players as part of the league’s centennial celebration.

“He’s the best player in the game; he’s earned that mantle,” said the Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, who will coach Crosby’s Metropolitan Division team in the All-Star Game. The N.H.L. asked Gretzky to take over as the coach after John Tortorella withdrew from the assignment to care for an ailing family pet.

Gretzky, now an executive with the Edmonton Oilers, said that McDavid, 20, was chasing Crosby for that title.

“Until somebody knocks him off the castle, that’s the way it’s going to be,” Gretzky said of Crosby. “He won two Stanley Cups and two gold medals, and he’s handled pressure and handled everything with grace and dignity, and he deserves all the accolades he’s getting.”

McDavid — who became a Penguins fan because of Crosby and beamed five years ago when Crosby told reporters that a 15-year-old McDavid reminded him of himself — has moved past fandom to mutual respect

“He’s the best player in the world, and you can learn off of the things he does. But at the end of the day, I think my game is a little bit different,” McDavid said by telephone this month, adding that Crosby played more of a power game while he had to rely on speed and other ways to be effective.

The arrival of stars like McDavid, Matthews, 19, and Laine, 18, seems to have pushed Crosby even harder to improve and reassert himself as the pre-eminent player.

“To get to this level and be at the top of your game, there’s always a ton of motivation,” Crosby said. “It’s good to see young players having success, and I’m sure it’s pushing everyone to be better, too.”

Crosby, the captain of the Metropolitan Division team for the All-Star three-on-three tournament, has not played in an All-Star Game since 2007, his second year in the league. It was the only time he competed in the midseason exhibition — injuries or Olympic participation has prevented him from returning until now.

After missing the first six games of the season because of a concussion, he is second in the league in points, behind McDavid, with 55, and first in goals, with 28, on pace for a career high and his second Maurice Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer. He is doing so with his relatively unknown linemates, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.

Crosby leads the league in points per game, and he is fifth on the career list in that category behind Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Mike Bossy.

In addition to his scoring prowess, Crosby saved the Penguins franchise, said Lemieux, the former Penguins star who is now a part owner of the team. The Penguins were in financial peril in the late 1990s, leading Lemieux to defer salary to purchase an ownership stake in the team and keep it in Pittsburgh.

By 2004, the Penguins were last in attendance, but Crosby’s arrival in 2005 revived interest. With Crosby as their captain, they went to the finals in 2008, won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and opened a new arena in 2010.

Lemieux, who retired in 2006, has been Crosby’s teammate, his boss and, early in Crosby’s career, his roommate. Lemieux spoke enthusiastically of Crosby on Friday night.

“Just like Wayne was when he played, he’s the hardest-working guy out there.” Lemieux said. “Whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game, he wants to win, he wants to be the best.

“I think his skating ability is second to none. His lower-body strength is unbelievable. If he goes one-on-one in the corner, he’s able to come out and make a play. His passing ability is probably the best in the league, and his vision, of course, is also one of the best.”

Crosby has lost a substantial portion of his career to injury, primarily concussions. He has missed more than 200 games, the equivalent of about two and a half seasons. Crosby has remained relatively healthy since 2012.

But he had a tepid start to last season, with just 9 points in his first 18 games. A coaching change and personnel moves rejuvenated him, and his team, offensively. After Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench, Crosby led the league in scoring. That propelled the Penguins into the playoffs, where they captured the Stanley Cup. Crosby earned his first Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s most valuable player.

Sullivan, who has spent over a quarter-century in the N.H.L., said he had never seen a star with Crosby’s strong work habits and drive to be the best. He also praised Crosby’s leadership on the team and his rapport with the coaching staff.

“I think what made him our best player was his complete game,” Sullivan said. “He plays a 200-foot game. He plays away from the puck every bit as hard as he plays with the puck. We rely on him at both ends of the rink.

“He always plays against the other team’s top defense pair and gets the most attention from a checking standpoint. He plays through all of that, game in and game out, series in and series out.”

Among his contemporaries, Crosby will forever be linked with the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, who joined him Saturday among the 100 greatest players. Ovechkin reached 1,000 career points earlier this season, but he took 880 games to do so. Crosby is on pace to reach that milestone shortly — in about 125 fewer career games.

“We started together,” Ovechkin said. “My first year in the league was his first year in the league. We both had success. We’re both top-100 players in the league. It’s amazing.”

Teemu Selanne, another prolific scorer who had a record 73 goals as a rookie in 1992-93 and played until age 44, said he was even more impressed with Crosby’s stateliness than with his stardom.

“He wants to be a role model for the younger players and be a spokesperson for the N.H.L.,” Selanne said. “He’s like a new version of Wayne. On the ice, we all know he good he is. He’s having a great year. The league needs guys like Crosby. He’s a pleasure to watch, and very gentlemanly. Hockey’s very lucky to have him.”


Anyone could've emerged as the most impressive performer at the all-star skills competition Saturday. In the end, though, Crosby stood out as always.

January 28, 2017
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 28: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on in the Honda NHL Four Line Challenge during the 2017 Coors Light NHL All-Star Skills Competition as part of the 2017 NHL All-Star Weekend at STAPLES Center on January 28, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on in the Honda NHL Four Line Challenge during the 2017 Coors Light NHL All-Star Skills Competition as part of the 2017 NHL All-Star Weekend at STAPLES Center on January 28, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES – It was a sleepy, pleasant little night, nothing more, as the NHL’s Skills Competition always is. No one would’ve cared if Sidney Crosby set his Best Player in the World crown down for a few hours. But we should know by now it’s just not the way he works.
If Peyton Manning or Tom Brady entered a skills competition, no matter how low the stakes, they’d give it their all. Same goes for Michael Jordan or LeBron James. It’s just how they’re wired. And Crosby, with all the excuses in the world to look human Saturday at Staples Center, decided…nah, he’d keep behaving like a cyborg.
“There’s 20,000 here, and they want to see some skills, so you want to make sure you do well,” Crosby told reporters. “But once you’re out there, you’ve just got to enjoy it and have fun with the guys.”
He was tested three times in his first Skills Competition in 10 years and did nothing but deliver. First came the stickhandling leg of the Skills Challenge Relay. While his counterpart, rising superstar Auston Matthews, fumbled under the bright lights, Crosby effortlessly weaved the puck around the markers. Later, matched against Matthews in the accuracy shooting event, Crosby needed a special effort to top Matthews’ 4-for-5 performance in 12.28 seconds. Crosby pulled it out in 10.73 seconds.
“I just told the guys to try to get pucks out quickly to just get me time and get a rhythm,” Crosby told reporters. “When you’re out there, you’re not thinking about it too much. You do that all the time after practice. It’s not quite the same pressure, but you just try to get the pucks out quick, and they did a good job of that.”
In the night’s final event, the team shootout round, Crosby stared down San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones on a breakaway. Yawn. Crosby deftly slid the puck through Jones’ legs, capping off a near flawless night.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Columbus Blue Jackets right winger Cam Atkinson. “He’s an all-star for a reason and the best player in the world for a reason.”
I know, you’re sick of hearing about how special Crosby is. Why should we care about what he does in a skills competition? Because Saturday night, when there was no reason for anything memorable to happen, he managed to stand out. And he did so on a night lacking entertainment value, a night that hardly qualified as a legitimate showcase of the league’s talent. We saw missed nets galore in the one-timer portion of the Skills Challenge Relay. The Four Line Challenge, in which players had to try to score goals through designated holes, was a huge bust, yielding achingly few goals, rescued only by goaltender Mike Smith’s full-ice snipe. Crosby could’ve taken the night off, the way most of the NHL all-stars seemed to, but it’s just not in his DNA. Zero pressure? No problem. He’ll create his own pressure and still come through, and there was something oddly thrilling about seeing that Saturday.
“It’s surprising that it’s only his second time in this,” said New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, Crosby’s longtime Metropolitan Division rival. “You think of all he’s accomplished, not only for Pittsburgh but internationally, and he’s only had two times at this event. It’s probably something he wants to show up and do well at, because he hasn’t had an opportunity in the past. And it seems like that’s the kind of player he is. Super competitive and likes to be successful, obviously.”
Everyone in the NHL gets a break this weekend – even the all-stars to a certain extent. But Crosby gets less R&R than almost everyone else, swarmed by reporters at every turn. Maybe that kept him in mid-season form Saturday, and maybe that’ll give him a running start in the second half of the season. His 55 points put him four behind Connor McDavid’s 59 for the NHL lead. Crosby has played far fewer games, having missed his first six. His current point-per-game rate puts him on track to finish the year with 99 points if he plays in each of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ final 34 games, whereas the Edmonton Oilers’ McDavid is on pace to finish with 95 if he continues scoring at the same rate. It should be fun to watch them joust for the Art Ross.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Steelers giving Antonio Brown big-money deal would be insanity

By Mark Madden
January 27, 2017
Jan 8, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins during the first half in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 8, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins during the first half in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football geeks masquerading as local sports media want Antonio Brown signed to a long-term, big-money deal immediately.
That’s absolute insanity.
Brown is a constant distraction. Totally selfish. His timeline of tone-deafness is well-documented. Brown’s latest faux pas: Pouting after DeAngelo Williams, not him, scored a touchdown in the AFC Championship game loss at New England, necessitating a refocusing by Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline. Baby stuff.
To paraphrase ex-Steeler Ike Taylor on the NFL Network, Roethlisberger made Brown. Plenty of Steelers receivers have come and gone, including Santonio Holmes a year after getting Super Bowl MVP. “We love you, but you can go!”
Shoeless Ike is the voice of reason. Is that what it’s come to?
I would not sign Brown to a long-term contract. If his ego and self-absorption are uncontrollable now, giving him a big pile of money won’t help.
Nor would I trade or cut Brown.
Brown has one year left on his deal. I’d make him play it out. At the end of the 2017 season, maybe Brown stays. Maybe he goes. But making him truly earn his next paycheck forces Brown to focus and fly right, or he compromises his future.
If Brown whines about his lack of security, potential future employers see that. If Brown holds out, potential future employers see that. If Brown gives less than his best effort, potential future employers see that. If Brown’s stats dip dramatically for a second straight season, potential future employers see that.
If his circus act continues, Brown sabotages himself.
Is Brown stupid enough to do that? Don’t rule out that possibility.
Roethlisberger probably isn’t retiring, not now. But it wouldn’t be shocking if the 2017 season is his last. Making Brown play out the final year of his contract is the optimum bet for giving Roethlisberger the best possible Brown to work with.
It might also relieve the pounding in Roethlisberger’s head.
Brown’s shenanigans are surely one reason Roethlisberger in threatening to quit. They’re part of coach Mike Tomlin’s general lack of locker-room control.
Brown might be OK with playing out his contract and then leaving. So what? Holmes, Mike Wallace, Plaxico Burress, etc.
Say Brown performs incredibly in 2017, and the Steelers want to keep him.
Here’s Plan B:
Le’Veon Bell presumably gets the franchise tag for 2017. If he beats the odds and avoids a drug suspension for a third straight year and couples that with an excellent, injury-free performance for the first half of the season, try to sign Bell long-term at that point. He’s been hurt and has carried a big workload, but he’s only 24.
If Bell signs an extension, the Steelers can consider franchising Brown for 2018. If Bell stays off the weed, he’s a better long-term bet. Brown is four years older.
Neither Bell nor Brown would like being jerked around, but we reap what we sow. Bell and Brown have not conducted themselves in a manner fair to the Steelers.
Plan B pits Bell against Brown, which I like. Added bonus.
If my scenarios seems a bit contrived, they’re certainly more logical than giving Brown huge dough for the long haul when there are so many legit arguments for not doing so, and alternatives that make sense.
But I don’t play fantasy football, so what could I possibly know?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Steelers' title dreams dissolve in familiar fashion against Patriots

By Chris Mueller
January 25, 2017
Chris Hogan of the New England Patriots carries the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Mass.
Chris Hogan of the New England Patriots carries the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Mass.(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Note to self: never pick against the New England Patriots again. Especially if they’re playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The beating Mike Tomlin’s team took in Foxborough should have been as predictable as it was humiliating.
You probably found yourself saying, “I’ve seen this movie before,” when the Pats turned up the tempo on their first drive and left the Steelers’ defense sucking wind. It was a time-honored formula that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have previously employed, with spectacular results, against the Steelers.
Apparently, the only party caught off-guard by the move was the Pittsburgh’s defense, with linebacker Bud Dupree admitting that New England’s tempo on the game’s opening drive surprised Keith Butler and his charges.
The Pats’ pace neutralized any chance the Steelers had of generating a consistent pass rush, not that their scheme seemed predicated on one, anyway. They frequently dropped seven or eight men into coverage, daring Brady to beat their zone. This would be well and good if it wasn’t a well-established fact that Brady torches zones.
In truth, though, no scheme was likely to slow down the Patriots’ offense. The only way to do that is to simply win one-on-one matchups and collapse the pocket, like Von Miller and the Denver Broncos did last year. The Steelers don’t have a Von Miller.
Thing is, as bad as the defense was, this game wasn’t necessarily all about them.
Not many, if any, people who picked the Steelers did so because of some overriding faith in their defense. They picked them to win because of their offense. And, in an all-too-familiar scenario, for a variety of reasons, that offense failed to hold up its end of the bargain.
Le’Veon Bell got hurt. Or was already hurt, and the Steelers knew it, and therefore dressed Fitzgerald Toussaint, who in normal circumstances would not warrant a “hat” for a game of this magnitude, or any game, really. Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton both dropped catchable, well-thrown passes. Hamilton’s drop took points directly off the board. Coates’ changed the complexion of the game early on.
The Steelers were stuffed on first-and-goal from the 1-foot line. Roethlisberger, when asked on the "Cook and Poni Show" on 93.7 The Fan about the possibility of a QB sneak in that situation, said, "the plays come in from coach Haley, and I call them."
Typical. When the play works, Roethlisberger frequently seems to be the guy who made the call. When it doesn't, he's only too happy to pass the buck to Haley. Ben also said he is more than happy to sneak the ball, and that his success rate is high, in the high nineties, percentage-wise. Mike Tomlin, asked whether Roethlisberger has the freedom to run a sneak in that situation, simply said, "yes."
So why didn't he? Why was it, "the plays come in from coach Haley, and I call them," in that situation? Only Ben knows, apparently.
And people in this town like to question Tom Brady's toughness and willingness to take hits. Brady, thirty-five pounds lighter and an inch shorter than Roethlisberger, has never been shy about diving forward to pick up a yard for his team.
That’s really the difference, in a nutshell, when it comes down to it. The Steelers have the unique, spectacular stars. We fawn over Bell’s incredible moves, Antonio Brown’s precision, Roethlisberger’s singular physical attributes and skill set. We hypothesize about what this team might do if and when all the pieces are in place on offense.
The Patriots just go out and win. They win better than anyone else. No one speaks glowingly of how flashy or incredible they are, save Brady. No one waxes poetic about the beauty of watching LeGarrette Blount run, or Julian Edelman catch eight-yard passes.
There isn’t anything all that elegant about the Pats. They are a model of ruthless efficiency, tailoring their game plan differently every week, the only real goal being the complete destruction of the opposition.
As Blount said after the game, no one complains about the potential for wild fluctuations in the number of touches they get on a week to week basis, because everyone is treated the same, up to and including Brady.
The Steelers make for great feature pieces and spectacular highlights. The Patriots stack victories. The Steelers like to play “their game”, come hell or high water. The Patriots don’t assume that “their way” will work every time, so they tweak constantly.
And as was proven emphatically Sunday night, when the two teams meet, the Steelers get humiliated, and the Patriots get the last laugh.
Chris Mueller is co-host of "The Starkey & Mueller Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Conor Sheary continues to prove doubters wrong

By Brian Metzer
January 24, 2017
(Getty Images)
On Sept. 4, 2016, I took a long, hard look at Penguins forward Conor Sheary. I pointed to his production alongside Sidney Crosby during the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a sign that he could potentially thrive in that role moving forward, but I also spent time being a critical of the young winger.
My fear was that he simply wasn’t going to be able to finish enough to be a viable linemate for the Penguins’ captain. That assessment was drawn after seeing him put up only four goals in 23 games alongside Crosby en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
Sheary finished the postseason with four goals and six assists (10 points), and forced this question: Though he seemed to mesh with the Penguins' captain, could the pairing work over the course of an 82-game regular season without a significant uptick in production?
The good news is that Sheary's play quickly turned that question into an afterthought.
He picked up two goals and an assist during the Penguins 5-1 victory over the Boston Bruins on Sunday and has now scored nine goals in his last nine games. He is riding a current four-game scoring streak that has seen him collect nine points, was named the NHL's No. 1 star for last week and seems to be getting better by the day. 
His recent run has pushed his season totals to 17 goals and 17 assists (34 points) in 39 games. I don’t think many around the team predicted this kind of production from Sheary. Sure, 17 goals and 34 points might have been a good target for the season, but in fewer than forty games? Get out of town.
Coach Mike Sullivan admitted his surprise following the game on Sunday.
“I felt strongly that Conor could be a good player in this league,” Sullivan said. “He’s real elusive, he has great quickness to his game, he has a high hockey IQ and he’s brave. I’m not going to suggest I thought he’d have 17 goals halfway through the season but I knew he could play in this league and he could be a solid player at the NHL level.”
Sheary didn't have much experience at the NHL level to base assessments on for this season, so I looked at his AHL statistics and they told a promising story.
He played 90 regular-season games for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins over the past three seasons and rolled up 27 goals and 54 assists for 81 points. He posted 220 shots on goal and a plus-8 rating. He was better in the postseason, where he became a point-per-game player with 11 goals and 12 assists for 23 points in 23 playoff games. He produced 62 shots on goal (2.70 per game), an improvement on his 2.44 regular-season shots-per-game average.
He has essentially been the same player in the NHL. He’s averaging .43 goals, .43 assists and .87 points per game. He’s taking 2.43 shots per game, almost matching his regular-season SPG average in the AHL.
The question now becomes: Can he sustain it?
It's possible. It appears that he is going to stick with Crosby, who's rolling up 1.35 points per night. Sheary has shown an innate ability to find open space and Crosby is finding him with regularity.
Another topic that I hit on in September was the fact that Sheary had quite a bit in common with Martin St. Louis. The two are very similar in height and weight and they had very similar point totals through their first 60-plus NHL games.
St. Louis picked up 20 points in his first 63 NHL games, while Sheary picked up 20 in 67 combined regular-season and playoff games.
Based on that, it seemed to fair to think that Sheary could come close to reaching the totals that St. Louis posted during his first full season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He scored 18 goals and 40 points in 78 games. Sheary is very close to surpassing those totals in roughly half of a season.
It is too early to assume that Sheary is going to match St. Louis’ NHL totals of 391 goals, 642 assists and 1,033 points in 1,134 games, but at this point he’s certainly proving all of the doubters wrong -- including me.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Patriots take advantage of Steelers’ dismal defense

Pats have upper ‘hand’ as Curtain falls on Pitt

January 23, 2017

Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots scores a touchdown during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots scores a touchdown during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — In the 1970s, the Steelers’ defense was called the “Steel Curtain.” These days, at least when they play the Patriots, it should be called the “Hand Up’’ defense because that’s what always seems to happen — some receiver is running through the middle of it with his hand up.

Last night that was most often wide receiver Chris Hogan, although he was not alone. Actually he was nearly always alone but the few times he wasn’t, somebody else had their hand up because they were running free, too.

The Steelers secondary seemed to believe that “free release” meant what it does on Charlie Moore’s fishing show on NESN. Just let the poor thing go.

Hogan had his hand up so often last night that if he’d been in Mrs. Tomlin’s civics class she would have said “Sit down, Chris and give someone else a chance.” But he wasn’t in Mrs. Tomlin’s civics class. He was running all around Mr. Tomlin’s secondary and baffled Steelers coach Mike Tomlin couldn’t think of any way to make him sit down and be quiet.

Maybe if Tomlin had another day and a half to prepare he would have come up with something but now that I think about it he did come up with something. He came up with a ready-made excuse for why his pass defense looked like it had no idea what it was supposed to be doing, having complained after winning a divisional round playoff game in Kansas City last week that the Patriots (although he used a less flattering term involving a portion of their derriere to describe them) had been given an unfair advantage by having played the night before at home and would not have to travel for last night’s AFC Championship Game.

Instead of making locker room speeches of the “oh poor us” variety in a whining tone, Tomlin might have been wiser to have been reminding defensive coordinator Keith Butler that not covering a receiver at all — or pairing up a linebacker who can no longer run like James Harrison on Julian Edelman — were more than a little unwise.

Tom Brady is the master of many things but none more than finding the receiver the other team forgets to cover. This is especially true when that receiver is so open he thrusts his hand in the air and begins waving as enthusiastically as Donald Trump was when Barack Obama’s helicopter lifted off the ground Friday afternoon.

“It comes down to execution,” Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said. “Anytime you play New England you know they operate with a lot of detail. It’s important that your execution matches that detail level. We didn’t do it today.”

Well, actually defensively they did execute. They executed themselves and of all the hangmen who helped them put the noose around their neck the most obvious — to everyone but them — was Hogan. In the end, Hogan caught nine passes for a team postseason record 180 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-17 drubbing of the Steelers that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl for a NFL-record ninth time to face the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in two weeks at NRG Stadium in Houston.

It marks the seventh time in the Brady-Belichick Era that they’ve ended up in the Super Bowl, which left Bill Belichick at the top of the coaching food chain as the coach with the most appearances in the big game, and he got there this time in large part because he signed a restricted free agent the Bills didn’t want to pay last March. That’s what makes the Bills the Bills and Bill Bill.

Ten months later, the Steelers showed as much interest in Hogan as the Bills had. The Bills didn’t covet him and the Steelers didn’t cover him, the latter beginning with a 27-yard reception out of a last-second alignment change early in the game that left the Steelers’ defense flat-footed and confounded. It was a position they assumed quite often.

On the same drive Hogan scored on a 16-yard touchdown throw in which he ran deep through Pittsburgh’s secondary and found himself so open he was waving his arm in the end zone while linebacker Bud Dupree and safety Robert Golden stood well to his left, covering the goal post. When Brady easily found Hogan, the two defenders seemed so confused they didn’t even know who should be pointing accusatory fingers at whom.

Later, Hogan would beat them on a similarly wide-open route for a 34-yard touchdown off a flea flicker in which half the Steeler defense rushed headlong toward the line of scrimmage as Dion Lewis turned and flipped the ball back to Brady.

As Hogan was running a deep crossing route, safety Mike Mitchell sprinted toward the line of scrimmage for 5 yards as Hogan ran right by him. As he did, Mitchell slammed on the brakes and turned to retreat but he was now 3 yards behind the play and that’s where he stayed as Hogan ran free, hand in the air, for as easy a touchdown throw as Brady will ever see.

Nothing would improve after halftime. At least not for the “Hand Up” defense. That’s what Hogan had when he ran a deep hook that turned around cornerback Artie Burns like he was a dreidel and it’s what he had on the next drive when he ran a deep in, beating cornerback William Gay, who didn’t seem too happy.

By then no one in Steeler colors was because soon the score climbed to 27-9 and although more than a quarter remained to play it was hands down obvious that the “Hand Up’’ defense would time and again let some Patriot run free.

“He just slipped behind our coverages,” Burns said later of Hogan, stating the obvious. “Brady was able to make the plays last longer and he was able to dump it off to him. Brady was just doing what Brady do, getting the ball to his guy and breaking down coverages.”

Indeed he do.

But Jack Brady, Tom’s 8-year-old son, could have completed some of those throws to Hogan. And that seemed to enrage Steeler linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who was last seen in the missing persons department himself.

“He shouldn’t be open at all,” Timmons barked. “They did a good job snapping the ball and getting us going while we were trying to get the calls in. They just did a good job snapping it fast.”

They did and the Steelers did a good job of thinking slow, which is why they’re going home and the Patriots are going to Houston.

Unheralded WR Hogan the hero for Patriots

January 22, 2017
Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball against Sean Davis #28 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half of the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball against Sean Davis #28 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half of the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Steelers' season was interrupted Sunday night, like their sleep early that morning, by a sudden sound.
Unlike the fire drill that awoke the team at their Boston Logan Airport Hilton hotel, this was no false alarm.
This was the roar of New England Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium, cheers that reached a crescendo on Chris Hogan's 34-yard scoring pass from Tom Brady in the second quarter.
Hogan had two 100-yard receiving games in his four-year career and never before had a multiple-touchdown game. He achieved both by halftime, with seven catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
“It'll be something that I'll definitely remember for the rest of my career,” Hogan said, “and probably for the rest of my life.”
One the Steelers won't forget.
Brady was brilliant, as usual, but Hogan was the hero as the Patriots clinched the AFC championship in a 36-17 victory over the Steelers for their ninth Super Bowl appearance.
Hogan made the play that ended the Steelers' bid for a seventh Super Bowl title, the play that continued their serving second fiddle to Bill Belichick, Brady and the Patriots since losing the 2002 AFC title game.
There will be no Stairway to Seven. Not this season, anyway.
The Steelers had an ominous start to the day. From the town and team that brought you Spygate and Deflategate came the latest caper: Alarmgate. A 25-year-old Patriots fan pulled the fire alarm at 3 a.m. Sunday at the Steelers' team hotel.
That was the first time the Steelers were caught sleeping Sunday in New England.
It wouldn't be the last.
The Patriots were making their 11th AFC championship game appearance since 2002 and sixth straight. Two of those came at the expense of the Steelers, one marking the beginning of the Brady era in New England, the other beginning of the Big Ben era in Pittsburgh.
Someday, both of their busts will be enshrined in Canton. On this day, one was Super Bowl-bound, the other Super-Bowl bust. With pinpoint accuracy, Brady showed why he owns a 7-2 record against the Steelers in the regular season, now 3-0 in the postseason and 5-0 at home.
Brady, who started this season serving a four-game suspension for his role in Deflategate, completed 32 of 42 for 384 yards, with three touchdowns and no picks, for his NFL-record 11th career 300-yard postseason game.
What the Steelers missed, as they have all season, was a secondary receiver to take the pressure off Antonio Brown.
That role was supposed to belong to Martavis Bryant before his season-long suspension of the league's substance-abuse policy, or even tight end Ladarius Green before ankle surgery and a concussion.
Both Sammie Coates, who dropped a deep third-and-1 pass in the first quarter, and Cobi Hamilton, who couldn't corral one in the end zone in the second quarter, blew their chances.
“It's a little frustrating because we talk about (how) sometimes it's just one play here, one play there,” Roethlisberger said. “We didn't make those plays. Was it too big? What it was, I don't know. But we need to make every single play in a game like this against an opponent like this.”
Tight end Jesse James came closest to making one of those plays late in the second quarter, but a video review ruled that he was down at the Patriots 1. After two negative rushing plays and an incomplete pass, the Steelers settled for a field goal.
That isn't enough against Brady, even though he was missing his favorite target in injured tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Of course, the Patriots can convert any chump into a 100-yard receiver, or so it seems. Julian Edelman was a quarterback at Kent State. Hogan played lacrosse at Penn State.
“He plays with such a high effort that he makes every corner expend a lot of energy on every play,” Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan said of Hogan. “When you cover a guy, you have to match that passion. If you don't, he'll make you look bad.”
Hogan got wide open in setting a Patriots postseason record for receiving yards in a game, with 180, on nine catches. His first touchdown, a 16-yarder, made it 10-0. His second touchdown gave the Patriots a 17-6 lead.
“We definitely weren't expecting him to have the game that he had,” Steelers cornerback Artie Burns Jr. said. “He just slipped behind coverages.”
Of all the statistics, this is the most alarming: The Patriots were 103-1 when leading by eight points at any time in a game since 2001 at Gillette Stadium.
You can't spot the Patriots that kind of lead at home.
Behind Brady and Hogan, this one was safe and sound.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.comor via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.