Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ravens won, so Steelers likely need to win Jan. 2 in Cleveland to get first-round bye. Two words: How's Troy?

Friday, December 24, 2010

'Twas two nights
before Christmas ...

Steelers 27, Panthers 3

By Mike Batista

Whether it's last-minute shopping, wrapping presents or cooking, just about everyone is taking care of business in the final days before Christmas.

That's exactly what the Steelers did Thursday. The Carolina Panthers were nothing more than a tree to be watered, lights to be strung up or reindeer to be fed.

The Steelers (11-4) had a job to do. A win over the Panthers (2-13) wasn't going to make any pundit anoint the Steelers the Flavor of the Week in the NFL. But a loss would have expedited them to the top of Santa Claus' naughty list and a lump of coal would have gone straight from a western Pennsylvania mine to their stocking.

The Steelers ensured a Merry Christmas by doing what they were supposed to do, which is dominate the Panthers. They had a 20-0 lead at halftime, allowing Pittsburgh sports fans to get to the stores before they close or watch the Penguins beat the Capitals.

And so in the spirit of Christmas, everybody is happy and life is artificially great for the Steelers. Any cares and concerns are put aside for the time being while the
Steelers attempt to sing Christmas carols and Brett Keisel models his Santa-like beard for the NFL Network.

... And all through the house ...

The Steelers have to wait an extra day to open their presents this year. On the morning after Christmas, they'll be jumping out of bed, running down the stairs in their footed pajamas hoping to see a Browns win over the Ravens under their tree.

With a Browns win, the Steelers will clinch the AFC North and a first-round bye in the playoffs, which means their Christmas break from needing to win football games will extend to mid-January.

The Browns will be torn between two lovers, or at least two teams they love to hate. They could beat the Ravens and knock them out of the AFC North race, but that would give Troy Polamalu an extra week of rest (he won't play in Cleveland if the Steelers don't need that game) and help the Steelers in the playoffs.

Since the Browns still suck, however, it's probably not going to be up to them. The Ravens will probably beat them and the Steelers will be back to work the day after New Year's needing to beat the Browns. The Ravens host the Bengals Jan. 2, so let's just say the Steelers will need to beat the Browns if the Ravens win Sunday.

If that's the case, all this Christmas cheer will be a distant memory. With bare Christmas trees strewn all over sidewalks, the reality of the Steelers' ramshackle offensive line and red zone inefficiency, as well as Polamalu's health (whether it's his ankle, calf, nose hairs or toe nails), will once again be in the Steelers' face.

But let's not think about January drudgery right now. Let's just sit by the fireplace, admire the tree and look back on the Steelers' Christmas story that was on TV Thursday night.

... Not a Panther was stirring ...

The Steelers allowed just 119 yards of offense and gobbled up rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen as if he were Claussen pickle, sacking him four times and intercepting him once. Clausen completed just 10 of 23 passes for 72 yards. He didn't get off the hook like Colt McCoy did earlier this year (the Steelers have a chance to make up for that).

Meanwhile, the Steelers generated 408 yards of offense. Their ground game was productive with Rashard Mendenhall running for 65 yards and Isaac Redman adding 43. Ben Roethlisberger threw for a career-high 259 first-half yards.

This game wasn't without a few anxious early moments. The Steelers had a little trouble tackling Jonathan Stewart, who came into the game averaging 115 yards rushing over the past four weeks. But the Panthers handed the Steelers a few presents. They gave the gift of ineptitude.

Carolina reached the Steelers' 35 on the game's opening drive, but stalled with two straight false start penalties.

After a Steelers field goal, Carolina mounted another drive and got to the Steelers' 29. Then on third-and-2, they went to the wildcat. Panthers and wildcat added up to a feline failure. Mike Goodson lost three yards, then on fourth down Clausen got sacked to yank the Panthers out of field goal range.

A 43-yard hot-route pass to Mike Wallace gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. A 12-yard pass to Heath Miller, who can enjoy some egg nog now that his noggin is healthy, got that drive going. He led the Steelers with five catches for 73 yards.

The Steelers' other two touchdowns came on 1-yard runs with Mendenhall scoring before halftime and Roethlisberger making it 27-0 in the third quarter. Big Ben's dive squashed the only second-half drama. The Steelers had a first-and-goal on the 1, and on third down the Panthers were halfway to what would have been an embarrassing goal-line stand.

... On Wallace, on Sanders, on Heath and Antonio

A 35-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders set up Mendenhall's touchdown. Sanders caught four balls for 54 yards. Am I the only one who thinks that it's Hines Ward catching the ball a lot of the time when Sanders catches the ball?

I know I'm opening up a can of worms here (anybody want that for Christmas?). Much of the reason for not being able to tell Sanders from Ward is their uniform numbers. The number "88" looks a lot like "86." There was a lot of Pittsburgh talk radio chatter about Ward, who had three catches for 38 yards, being done. I think the 13-year veteran is just gracefully passing the baton to a new generation of receivers.

Wallace is fifth in the league with 1,152 receiving yards and is averaging 20.2 yards per catch, second only to the Eagles' DeSean Jackson in that category among receivers with at least 15 catches. His emergence, as well as that of Antonio Brown, gives Roethlisberger a lot of toys at his disposal.

You might say Big Ben got his Christmas presents early when he returned to action in October. By that time, it wasn't hard to see a Christmas display somewhere or hear a Christmas carol.

Hang in there, Christmas is almost over. Then, as Mike Tomlin would say, it will be time for "January Football."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Panthers goal-line stand would have been quite embarrassing. 27-0 Steelers
When has challenging a spot ever worked, Tomlin?
Not surprised Steelers and Panthers players are fighting. They're such fierce preseason rivals. Steelers 20-0 at half
Emmanuel Sanders is growing up before our eyes. Steelers 17-0
What kind of TD celebration is that, Wallace? The Heinz Fall on Your Heinie? Steelers 10-0
John Fox didn't exactly throw that flag like a man.
in Buffalo, too
Kind of hoping the Steelers get a big early lead tonight so I can cut out early and wrap some presents. But I was hoping to cut out early when they were
Clearing my head

By Mike Batista

One last thing about the Steelers' loss to the Jets before we look ahead to tonight's game against the Panthers.

I was already sick of the Mark Sanchez public service announcement about women's heart health that constantly plays on KDKA the Fan, then that overhyped pretty boy goes out and beats the Steelers.

Of course, that's not the only spot that's been overplayed on TV and radio during the holiday season. Which Christmas car commercial are you most sick of? Vote in my poll.

If you're a Pittsburgh sports fan, you're likely to see each of those nauseating Hyundai, Honda and Lexus commercials at least a dozen times tonight during either the Penguins-Capitals game or the Panthers-Steelers game. The question is, which game will you be watching? Vote in my other poll.

Finally, a little bit of actual football talk. The Steelers are making the right move sitting Troy Polamalu tonight. If they can't beat the 2-12 Panthers at home without Polamalu, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs. Then, if the Steelers need to win in Cleveland on Jan. 2 to get that crucial first-round bye, Polamalu has another 10 days to rest, in addition to the 11 days that he's already rested.

Kickoff's in four and a half hours. Go Steelers!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bad date

Jets 22, Steelers 17

By Mike Batista

This was like "Hitch" in reverse.

Mike Tomlin, who despite looking like Omar Epps could be played by a bulked-up Will Smith, might be smoother and more articulate than blowhard Jets coach Rex Ryan, who could be played by a bulked-up Kevin James. But on Sunday, Ryan outwitted Tomlin in the Jets' win over the Steelers.

With the Steelers leading 17-10 in the third quarter, Ryan decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers' 7-yard-line. Jets' quarterback Mark Sanchez, a pretty boy who probably doesn't need Hitch-type counseling, faked a handoff to Shonn Greene and ran untouched around the left side for the game-tying touchdown.

Riverboat Rex gambled and won. And so did the Jets.

Hopefully the postgame handshake between Tomlin and Ryan didn't go like this:

Safety pin

There's something emasculating about a safety, considering the indignity of being tackled in your own end zone, then having to give the ball to the other team.

But emasculation was the least of the Steelers' problems when Jason Taylor, another Jets' pretty boy, tackled Mewelde Moore in the end zone. Those two points increased the Jets' lead to 22-17 and took away a field goal as an option as the Steelers tried to come back with 2:45 to play.

Because of his sure-handedness, Moore often gets the ball when the Steelers are deep in their own end. But Taylor, who by the way was born in Pittsburgh on Sept. 1, 1974, exactly two weeks before the Steelers opened their first championship season, got through because there was a missed blocking assignment on the left side of the Steelers' offensive line.

It's too bad, because the O-Line was just one of the problems the Steelers seem to have solved in this game.

Stupid is as Stupid Does

Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just once in the first three quarters, but twice in the fourth quarter to stunt Steelers drives after they had fallen behind.

The Steelers even curbed the penalties. They were good boys in the first half with no infractions. Unfortunately, they got stupid in the second half. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Ryan Clark (and yes, it was a penalty) added 15 yards to a 15-yard reception by Braylon Edwards, putting the ball on the Steelers' 16 and leading to Sanchez's tying touchdown.

On the ensuing possession, Flozell Adams apparently let Darrelle Revis get under his skin despite having eight inches and 140 pounds on him. The personal foul just about negated a 17-yard pass to Mike Wallace and dragged the Steelers back to their 31.

The Steelers regained their discipline, but that brief flurry of knuckleheadedness proved costly.

Even Rashard Mendenhall didn't make me want to hit myself in the head with a hammer for a change. His dance moves were actually effective Sunday as he gained 100 yards on 17 carries. He also had a touchdown to give the Steelers a 17-10 lead in the third quarter.

But the lead was short-lived, and the Steelers (10-4) lost despite looking better in a lot of areas than they have in a few weeks. Perhaps looks don't matter and "Hitch" was full of shit.

Nothing special

No, the Steelers didn't lose because Troy Polamalu was out, even though he might have been able to cover some ground on the perimeter when Sanchez scored his touchdown.

Somehow I can never get through a column without mentioning the Steelers' Five-Game Losing Streak of 2009. It's hard to forget considering its Titanic-like effect.

Polamalu's injury wasn't the only reason the Steelers lost five in a row last season. Special teams was another culprit. The Steelers allowed two touchdowns on kickoff returns during that slide, including one on the opening kickoff against the Chiefs.

That's exactly what happened Sunday. The Jets came into Heinz Field with their heads hanging after a 45-3 loss at New England and a 10-6 loss at home to the Dolphins. But on Sunday the Steelers allowed Brad Smith to return the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. That got the Jets (10-4) back on the right track a lot more effectively than Ryan burying the football after the loss to the Patriots.

Tomlin might make empty promises to unleash hell, but he wouldn't do anything that cheesy.

The Steelers eventually answered Smith's touchdown. But they had no answer for Nick Folk's 34-yard field goal with 10:11 left in the game, which gave the Jets the lead for good at 20-17.

As debilitating as it was, the safety didn't finish off the Steelers. They forced a three-and-out and got the ball at their 8 with 2:08 left and one timeout. A 22-yard scramble by Roethlisberger and a 29-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders on third-and-24 highlighted the Steelers' march to the Jets' 10 with nine seconds left.

But that's as far as they went. Perhaps Heath Miller would have come in handy.

Minimal Damage

Funny how there's less Pittsburgh talk-radio chatter about the Steelers getting another shot at the Patriots in the playoffs.

But somehow the Steelers clinched a playoff berth Sunday, and to figure out the mathematical formula that got them in the playoffs, we need the help of this New Englander:

There's no need to fill a blackboard to figure out how the Steelers get a first-round bye. They just have to win their last two games.

Even though there's been talk about Polamalu sitting out the rest of the regular season, from Tomlin's press conference Monday, it sounds like he could be back Thursday against Carolina. I say let him rest for two more weeks, and have him ready for Cleveland if the Steelers need that game. If the Steelers can't win at home against the 2-12 Panthers, Polamalu or no Polamalu, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs.

The Steelers might have lost five in a row without Polamalu last season, but they also won three in a row without him to end the season, two of those wins coming against playoff teams.

Considering their playoff berth and the fact they control their own destiny, the Steelers got off light with this loss. Losing to Carolina or Cleveland would be a lot more costly.
I hate CBS. Right after a Steelers loss, they preview a 60 Minutes story about the state debt crisis threatening the economy. Like I wasn't depressed enough.
Can't give Jets too many more first downs
Thank you soooo much CBS for showing the Jets 0-11 in Pa graphic. Jinx it why don't ya? Jets 20, Steelers 17
I think a certain long-haired safety would have been able to patrol the perimeter on that Sanchez fake. Jets 17, Steelers 17
Mendenhall's dance moves aren't making me want to hit myself in the head with a hammer for a change. Steelers 17-10
Suisham 10 for 10 kicking FGs for Steelers and he ties the score 10-10. Two words: Lottery numbers.
Let's see. Does yelling Spaaaeeeth in a really deep voice sound as cool as Heeeaaath? Jets 7, Steelers 7. ... Did the Steelers really move the ball 96 yards?
What's Big Ben saying to the ref between the first and second quarter? Please don't let those meanies hurt me?
What's Cromartie going to do next? Stick his hands in Wallace's pants?
Not a good idea giving a struggling team an early morale boost. Jets 7, Steelers 0

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Going batty

Steelers 23, Bengals 7

By Mike Batista

Thwapp! Biff! Zowie!

Batman and Robin have saved the Steelers again. And yes, "Biff" is an actual word from a fight scene in the "Batman" TV series, not some rich blond guy with a sweater draped around his shoulders and a girlfriend named Muffy.

A week after teaming up to snatch the victory from the dastardly Ravens, Troy Polamalu (Batman) and LaMarr Woodley (let's just say Robin's all grown up now and a little bit bigger than Batman) provided the Steelers with their only touchdowns in Sunday's 23-7 win over the Bengals, who considering their feline nickname and performance this season, could be cast as the Catwoman of the NFL.

For the second straight week, there would have been no Steelers touchdowns without the handiwork of the Steelers' Dymanic Defensive Duo.

Unlike the Ravens last week, the Bengals didn't have the Steelers tied to a spit in one of those "Same Bat Time. Same Bat Channel" cliffhangers. But just when the Bengals' upset plot started coming together, Polamalu was there to answer the Bat Phone.

Troy Wonder

The Bengals scored on the game's opening drive and held a 7-0 lead for most of the first half. The frustration was slowly starting to snowball when Polamalu picked off Carson Palmer and returned it 45 yards for a game-tying touchdown late in the first half.

Polamalu didn't have to do a lot of zig-zagging on his way to the end zone this time. His path was mostly unobstructed until Palmer, his former USC teammate, attempted to knock him out of bounds near the 4-yard-line. So he took to the air, even though Batman isn't a flying superhero, and stuck out his arm to get the ball through the end zone for the TD.

Considering the Steelers' chances of getting the ball into the end zone from the 4, Polamalu's extra effort was needed.

Shaun Suisham added a field goal to give the Steelers a 10-7 halftime lead and another in the third quarter to make it 13-7. While Suisham has made all nine of his field goal attempts as a Steeler and paper towel dispensers in western Pennsylvania are resting easier, Steelers fans were still restless early in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

The Steelers were closing in on another field goal and a two-possession lead when Ben Roethlisberger was sacked on back-to-back plays for 17 yards, yanking them from field goal range and forcing new punter Jeremy Kapinos into action.

But on the first play of the Bengals' ensuing possession, Woodley picked off Palmer and ran it in 14 yards for the touchdown and a 20-7 lead with about 12 minutes to go. It was the linebacker's third career interception, and it gives me a chance to correct an omission in last week's column.

Pick-up and delivery

Woodley has mastered the art of picking up a fumble, not just falling on it, and returning it a long way. It's becoming an annual phenomenon, and he always seems to do it against teams who also could be considered the Catwoman of the NFL with their purple uniforms.

Last week, Woodley scooped up the fumble forced by Polamalu and returned it 20 yards to the Ravens' 9 to set up the Steelers' game-winning touchdown. Last year against the Vikings, he cleaned up a fumble forced by Brett Keisel and returned it 77 yards for a touchdown to give the Steelers a 20-10 lead in a game they went on to win 27-17. In 2008 against the Ravens, he took a fumble forced by James Harrison and brought it in seven yards for the TD and a 17-13 Steelers lead. They went on to win that game 23-20 in overtime.

Woodley also had two sacks Sunday. It was Polamalu, however, who ultimately handcuffed the Bengals and brought them before Chief O'Hara and Commissioner Gordon (who the Steelers would probably rather see in Gotham City than Commissioner Goodell).


The Bengals still were within a pair of touchdowns and two-point conversions when they moved the ball to the Steelers' 16 with just over two minutes left. Palmer took a shot at the end zone, but there was Polamalu with his second interception.

OK, maybe what Polamalu did next was evidence of his heavy hair weighing down his brain. All he had to do was hit the ground to finish off the Bengals. Instead, he returned the ball and tried to lateral to Bryant McFadden at the Steelers' 10, momentarily leaving a crack in the door for the Bengals. The ball fell on the ground in front of McFadden, but he picked it up and finally secured the win for the Steelers.

Polamalu is now tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions this season. The Steelers' four-game winning streak has coincided with Polamalu's emergence from his mid-season funk. They definitely don't beat the Ravens without Polamalu. They might not beat the Bills without him, and they would have had a much harder time beating the Bengals without him.

Yet it's clear Polamalu isn't 100 percent healthy. He hurt something during his touchdown return and limped for the rest of the game. I'm running out of ways to say that Polamalu's absence sank the Steelers' 2009 season. All I can say is that watching Polamalu is like a parent watching a 3-year-old at the playground. You don't want him to get hurt.

As of Monday morning, no news came out about any Polamalu injury. There was talk that he aggravated an ankle injury he's had all season. Maybe it's his calf. Maybe it's a pulled follicle. Whatever it is, if the Steelers (10-3) win their three remaining games they'll earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. That would come in handy considering how dinged up Polamalu is.

No offense

Another concern for the Steelers is their offense. In their last 185 minutes of football, the Steelers' only touchdown drive on offense has gone for nine yards.

On one hand, there also was a lot of bellyaching about the Steelers' offense and offensive line in the late autumn of 2008, and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, the Bengals (2-11) did drop three interceptions Sunday, and counting on defensive touchdowns and a flurry of field goals to win games is reminiscent of those Steelers teams led by Neil O'Donnell and Kordell Stewart. Those teams could go far in the playoffs, but they didn't win Super Bowls.

The offense as a unit was not up to snuff Sunday. There were, however, some strong individual performances, including that of Hines Ward. The 13-year veteran had eight receptions, his most in a game this season, for 115 yards.

Ward's 18-yard reception got the Steelers into Bengals territory and helped set up their go-ahead field goal at the end of the first half. His 21-yard catch got the Steelers to the Bengals' 9 and led to the Steelers' field goal on the opening drive of the second half. He also caught one for 29 yards to help get the Steelers out of a 2nd-and-30 hole late in the third quarter.

Hines Ward. That's Burt Ward's brother, right?
Steelers win 23-7. Now we hold our breath on Polamalu.
Well Polamalu can't be hurt too badly if he's trying to return a pick.
Sit down Palmer! This is NOT your house. Woodley Pick 6 makes it 20-7 Steelers
How far did Randle-El reach for that ball? He reached into 2005 and found his old form. 10-7 Steelers
Polamalu's TD could be costly spark for Steelers. Hopefully not too bad. Steelers might need him to score again. 7-7
Not a good quarter, fellas. This early deficit isn't good if the weather gets worse.
Good job, Ike. I smell letdown. Bengals 7, Steelers 0

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A name for all seasons

Steelers 13, Ravens 10

By Mike Batista

A nickname coined in the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer finally was earned in the unforgiving chill of December.

Steelers running back Isaac Redman, undrafted out of Bowie State, was dubbed "Red Zone" Redman before the 2009 season because he did well in a goal-line drill during training camp.

That's nice, but producing in the red zone is one thing against teammates under the sunny skies of August, on the pastoral campus of St. Vincent College.

Red zone pressure is quite another thing in the cold, hostile environs of Baltimore, with not just a roster spot, but the AFC North on the line.

The Steelers trailed 10-6 with three minutes left in Sunday's game and faced third-and-goal from the Ravens' 9. If the Steelers' playbook consists of 200 pages, they went to Page 239 when Ben Roethlisberger threw a checkdown pass to Redman, who shed safety Dawan Landry halfway between the line of scrimmage and the goal line, then spun the rest of the way for the Steelers' only touchdown of the night and the first of his career.

The Ravens still had 2:51 and a timeout after Redman's touchdown. With the help of the second pass interference penalty against Bryant McFadden, both in the last five minutes, they reached the Steelers' 31. On fourth-and-2, the Ravens used their last timeout with 37 seconds left and went for the first down instead of attempting a game-tying field goal. Joe Flacco threw the lamest excuse for a pass, which fell well short of tight end Ed Dickson, and the Steelers (9-3) could turn their thoughts from a messy fight for a wild-card berth to a possible first-round bye in the playoffs.

For 56 minutes Sunday night, the Steelers did not look capable of winning this game. The best thing to happen to them was Roethlisberger's broken nose, which hopefully will make him more self-conscious and keep him out of bars.

Roethlisberger already was playing with a cement shoe on his broken right foot. His broken schnoz bloodied up his jersey, but he stayed in the game. Other Steelers weren't so fortunate.

Heath Miller suffered a concussion after a hit by Chris Carr that should have drawn a penalty (perhaps Carr wasn't penalized because the Ravens' leotard-like black pants made them look like guys who would try to fit a yellow handkerchief into their ensemble rather than guys capable of hurting anybody). The Steelers already were without Matt Spaeth, which is one of the reasons tight end David Johnson made three of his six career receptions in this game.

Flozell Adams, one of the Steelers' few offensive linemen not drawing unwanted attention for crappy play this season, was knocked out with a high ankle sprain. And punter Daniel Sepulveda was lost for the season with a torn ACL in his non-kicking leg.

So kicker Shaun Suisham not only kept the Steelers in the game with his two field goals, but also handled the punting duties. Suisham's done it all for the Steelers, except make a field goal at Heinz Field.

One of Suisham's field goals, a 19-yarder that pulled the Steelers to within 10-6 early in the fourth quarter, came at the end of a 16-play, 79-yard drive that was kept alive when Roethlisberger drew the Ravens offsides on a fourth-and-1.

It took that kind of chicanery to give the Steelers even a chance to win this game.

But with less than four minutes to go, it looked like the Steelers had emptied their bag of tricks. The Ravens (8-4) had a second-and-5 at their 43 and needed just a couple more first downs to put the game away and pretty much lock up the AFC North. The Steelers looked good enough to win the fight for a wild-card berth, but they didn't look quite good enough to beat the Ravens.

That's when Troy Polamalu struck. Like a rock band that waits until the end of the concert to play its signature song, the Steelers finally got the game-changing turnover that they could not win this game without.

Polamalu came into the backfield unblocked and made a guillotine-like motion with his arm, chopping the ball from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's hands. LaMarr Woodley scooped up the ball and took it to the Ravens' 9.

Those nine yards still seemed like a daunting wall for the Steelers, considering earlier in the game, they couldn't get into the end zone on a first-and-goal from the Ravens' 2. It looked like that wall would get a lot thicker when Terrell Suggs nearly sacked Roethlisberger, but instead tried to strip the ball from him. Roethlisberger, who seemed a lot more mobile in the second half, outmuscled the 260-pound linebacker to keep the ball, then threw it away to keep the Steelers nine yards from the end zone.

Another incomplete pass left the Steelers with two more chances to get that needed touchdown. Just when it looked like the Steelers' best chance would be Roethlisberger plodding into the end zone with a foot that looked like it was in a bucket, Redman finally showed he's more than a training-camp wonder.