Plenty To Play For

November 28, 2006

Most believe the Steelers season came to an end with Sunday’s loss to the Ravens. One person even told me that the team should tank the rest of the season in order to get a good draft pick next April. Nonsense. I’ve never believed in that and I never will. As long as there are games to play, I believe you go out there, compete as hard as you can, and try to win. Nothing good can become of purposefully losing games just to move up the NFL’s draft board. Why? Because fans pay good money to come watch professionals do something they can’t: play pro football. Also, let’s face it: the draft is a crap shoot. There are no guarantees from pick number one to pick number 258. Besides, that would never happen to a Bill Cowher-Coached team. Say what you will about his focus (or lackthereof) because of his uncertain future, his players respect him far too much to just not show up for these next five games. Besides, jobs are on the line for both players and coaches. Everyone is being watched closer than ever before. Obviously, the Steelers season has been a huge disappointment. This was a team that I thought was good enough to win the AFC North, and at least win a game or two in the playoffs, but I expect the Steelers to show some pride and play hard these next five games. A true Steeler fan wouldn’t have it any other way!

A Matter of Geography

November 27, 2006

The main objective in football is to move the ball up and down the field and score either enough touchdowns or field goals to beat the opponent. That is much easier to accomplish when you have to traverse less territory. I’m talking field position here folks and it was a major reason the Steelers failed so miserably in Baltimore. The Steelers would have had a tough time scoring against any defense, let alone the rugged Ravens’ unit considering their poor field position Sunday. Especially in the first half.
The best starting spot for the Steelers in the first half was their own 20 yard line. Their average starting spot was their own 16 yard line. It only improved to their own 21 for the game. At the same time, the two drives that ended with offensive touchdowns for the Ravens started at their own 44 and the Steelers 47. Baltimore barely had to work half the field for 14 points. That’s because Chris Gardocki did not have his best day as a punter. That’s because the Steelers aren’t getting much from their return teams. That’s because Hines Ward took a bad penalty at the end of one Steeler return that dropped it back to their own 14. That’s because Ben Roethlisberger was sacked so many times that it cost the Steelers 73 total yards.
Field position was just one of many issues the Steelers had against the Ravens. But it was nothing compared to where they are in the standings today. That’s the worst position they’ve been in in three years.

Big Ben Takes Charge

November 22, 2006

When I watched Ben Roethlisberger lead the Steelers back to victory over the Browns on Sunday, I saw more than a quarterback who shook off a bad first half and settle down. I saw a quarterback who had enough. Enough mistakes. Enough interceptions. Enough missed opportunities. In short, Big Ben finally said: ‘I’m mad as heck and I’m not gonna take it anymore!’ We’ve watched Roethlisberger hang his head in shame after poor performances against the Jaguars, Broncos, and Raiders. On Sunday, we saw someone who knew if he could just get his receivers to stop tipping the ball to the other team, he could make some things happen. He had that look in his eye, he wanted it. He wanted it bad. He willed himself and his team to victory. I’ve seen performances like this before. Growing up in Upstate New York, I saw my fair share of Buffalo Bills games. Their quarterback, Jim Kelly, would do the same thing. He’d two, three, four interceptions in the first half, then he’d comeback in the second half and throw darts all over the field and lead his team to victories. That’s what great quarterbacks do. They have short memories. They only think about the next play or the next series, not what happened earlier. I’m not saying Roethlisberger is in the same class with a Hall-Of-Famer like Jim Kelly. But Sunday’s performance just might be the turning point in his season. Not to mention the Steelers.

There are those out there who feel the Steelers can run the table and win the rest of their games and even make the playoffs. I don’t happen to be one of those people, but Sunday’s 38-31 win over the Saints is certainly a step in the right direction. The Steelers had a good run/pass mix on offense, Big Ben didn’t turn the ball over, and the defense finally created some miscues for the other team for a change. Of course, that same defense did give up over 500 yards of offense and they allowed the Saints three long scoring drives, but it has to start somewhere. In the locker room after the game, the players were very realistic about what the win means. The Black and Gold know it will take at least two more wins before they can realistically say they have a shot at the postseason. But, this team knows when they play up to their capabilities, they are much better than a 3-6 football team. The Steelers took step one on Sunday, they have seven more to go.

FORTUNES REVERSED

November 13, 2006

Same old, same old at Heinz Field. Despite piling up over 500 yards of offense, controlling the clock, converting on 10 of 16 third down plays, getting 29 first downs to the opponents 19, the statistically dominant team lost because they turned the ball over three times. Sound familiar? Sure. But this time it was the Saints fitting that description and the Steelers were the team that protected the ball and won.

The Saints lost three fumbles Sunday and the Steelers turned two of those into touchdowns. The third one sealed the Steelers win in the final minute. Kind of important in a game decided by a touchdown. And the lesson in turnover value continues for anyone watching the Steelers on a weekly basis.

After turning the ball over 10 times in their last two losses, the Steelers did not turn it over once against the Saints. Sean Morey did fumble a kick return but luckily Tyrone Carter was there to recover. And Ben Roethlisberger didn’t throw a pick. That kind of ball security was in direct contrast to a Saints team that fumbled a total of five times. It’s probably too late but it was still a nice way to start the second half.

It sure was a lot more fun last year when the Steelers were the best team in pro football. Even if it took until February to prove it. At the halfway point this season, there is little doubt that the Colts are the best team in the league. And they may in fact be headed to a perfect season.

Indianapolis has their warts, like every team in the salary cap, free agency era. In particular, their inability to stop the run could eventually do them in. Even in their win over the Patriots Sunday night, New England ran for 148 yards. But consider that the Colts have already beaten New England, Denver, and the New York Giants on the road. They have a different mentality than most teams that get this far undefeated because they made it to 13-0 just last year. Most of all, their remaining schedule is conducive to a long run. The only team left with a winning record is Jacksonville at 5-3. The combined record of their remaining eight opponents is 26-38.

If it lasts another month, the Colts will eventually be challenged with the decision of playing or restings stars and starters once they have clinched the division. Better to be healthy and rested for the playoffs, you would think, than go into the record books while remaining battered and bruised.

One real interesting possibility would be for the Colts to go into their final regular season game 15-0. Because they finish with the Miami Dolphins. The same Dolphins who toast their perfect 1972 season every year when the last remaining unbeaten team loses. The same Dolphins who ruined the Bears perfect regular season in 1985. The same Dolphins who gave this year’s Bears their first loss last Sunday.

It all sounds good now but it would mean two more months of winning and that is easier said than done even with the former Steeler, the level headed Tony Dungy at the helm. But one thing is certain, almost mathematically, and that is that the Steelers won’t be the team to knock the Colts from their high horse this year. Yep, at least around here, last year was so much more fun.

BETWEEN THE PENS PIPES

November 1, 2006

Twenty-year-old Evgeni Malkin scored a goal that made grizzled press box types jump from their seats. Nineteen-year-old Sidney Crosby is the best young player in the game. Jordan Staal played so well during his nine-game tryout that the Penguins couldn’t send him back to his junior team even though he is barely 18.
The baby Penguins are supposed to play in Wilkes Barre but this year they call Mellon Arena home and they have caused quite a buzz in hockey circles in and out of town.
But the biggest reason the Penguins are one of just two NHL teams without a road loss, the biggest reason they are battling New Jersey for first place in the Atlantic Division, the biggest reason they have a chance at major improvement this year, isn’t because of one of the young guys, it’s because of an old guy. One who turns 22 later this month. Somebody sign goalie Marc-Andre Fleury up for an AARP card.
In all sports the offensive stars make the most money and wind up on Sportscenter most often. But in all sports it’s defense that wins. Give me pitching, give me linebackers, give me good goaltending.
The Penguins took Fleury with the first pick overall in the 2003 draft but he’s been a mixed bag of goods early in his career. Not surprising because it takes goalies longer to develope than fowards or defenseman. But when he started this training camp on shaky ground and was threatened with a minor league demotion again, fans started to wonder if the Pens had blown it with that draft choice. Then the regular season started.
Fleury has been spectacular. He keeps the Penguins in almost every game and that was tougher to do before Malkin got healthy, when they were being outshot nearly every night. In fact he is 6th in the league in saves despite the fact that the five guys in front of him have all played more games. Fleury’s goals against average of 2.58 is 6th best in the entire NHL. His save percentage of .925 is seventh best in the league. Both are the best they have been in his short career at the NHL level and perhaps most important, both have improved each of his three seasons in the NHL.

Fleury is starting to look like the real deal, a guy who was always able to make the acrobatic save, but who is no longer allowing the cheap goal that plagued him and killed games so often during his first couple of years with the Pens. He’s also probably a little more relaxed with the firepower of guys like Malkin and Crosby up front. Whatever the reason, he’s been a lot less leaky between the pipes and because of that, the Penguins have shown real improvement.