Monday, November 28, 2011

Week 12: Steelers 13, Chiefs 9

Steelers win, for real

So who survives cutdown day? 

What? That wasn't a preseason game on Sunday? The Steelers actually get credit for a regular-season win after that performance?

Weslye Saunders. Ryan Mundy. Keenan Lewis. Jason Worilds. Those names normally remind us of August in Latrobe, not November in Kansas City.

Yet Saunders scored the game's only touchdown and Worilds had the Steelers' only sack, both career firsts, and Lewis and Mundy made their first career interceptions.

The truth is these guys are more than just practice fodder and special teams soldiers. Damn good thing, too, because most of the Steelers' household-name guys took the night off. 

The Steelers, leading by four points with four minutes left, were once again setting an "American Idol" stage for an unknown quarterback to hit the big time. Who can forget Curtis Painter, even though he's still no one's idol, tying the game in the final two minutes in Indianapolis? Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert came oh-so-close with his Hail Mary in Week 6.

Combine all those skeletons in the closet of the Steelers' defense with the vivid memory of Joe Flacco's winning drive three Sunday nights ago, and it seemed there was no way the Steelers were going to stop Tyler Palko with four minutes to go and 70 yards to defend. 

Then Lewis intercepted Palko with 38 seconds left to save the Steelers' ass. He also had a key pass breakup on a ball thrown to Steve Breaston that would have given the Chiefs a first down at the Steelers' 40 with two minutes left.

Mundy Night Football 

Until Sunday night, perhaps the most memorable moment of Lewis' career came during a 2010 preseason game when Mike Tomlin grabbed the front of his collar and chewed him out  like some bad-ass high school principal talking to a punk in the hallway. Lewis has come a long way since then. Now he's got a huge interception to show for all that progress.

Speaking of interceptions, if I would have told you that the Steelers would be 8-3 heading into December and Mundy would have more interceptions than Troy Polamalu, you would have thought I was so full of shit that my eyes were brown.

The Steelers played 56 minutes of the game without Polamalu, who was done after introducing his head to the knee of tackle-turned-receiver Steve Maneri. This is the second time this season Polamalu has left a game with "concussion-like symptoms." Isn't that a little bit like saying a woman has "pregnant-like" symptoms?

The fact is Polamalu has had so many concussions that one of these days he'll probably give himself another one shooting a Head & Shoulders commercial. That's how sensitive that noggin is.

Mundy might not fly all over the field like Polamalu, but he did lead the Steelers with seven tackles and he was where he had to be to get that pick, which gave the Steelers the ball on the Chiefs' 24 on a night when a long touchdown drive just wasn't happening. The second-quarter turnover led to Ben Roethlisberger's 2-yard pass to Saunders, the Steelers' backup tight end, and a 10-3 Steelers lead. Good for Saunders, although "WES-LEEEEEEE!" doesn't have the same ring to it as "HEEEEEEAAAAATH!"

Steelers get their take 

Like Mundy, Worilds showed he was more than just a warm body filling in for one of the cornerstones of the Steelers defense. He provided the Steelers with their only sack Sunday, which forced the Chiefs to punt late in the third quarter.

That was all well and good, but boy do the Steelers need LaMarr Woodley back. Any  quarterback not named Tyler Palko would have sliced and diced a defense with a puny pass rush like that. Hell, Tyler Perry probably would have done a better job.

Even on offense, the Steelers were bailed out by guys we don't expect much from. Hines Ward, who everyone figured would be buying announcer's suits during the bye week, tied for the team lead with four catches. He needs just 15 to reach 1,000 for his career.

Shaun Suisham made both of his field goal attempts, including a 49-yarder outdoors on a cold night to give the Steelers a 13-6 halftime lead. He's made 18 of his 23 field goal attempts this season, including 11 of his last 12. All that said, he's still not the guy I want kicking a 45-yard field goal with three seconds left and the Steelers down by two in a playoff game. He's getting there, though.

The Steelers would not have won without Suisham's field goals. They also would not have won without forcing four turnovers, the most they have forced in a game since Week 2 last season in Tennessee, when they forced seven. By forcing those four turnovers and turning it over just twice, they spared us my weekly turnover tally, because while their 10 takeaways and minus-8 turnover margin are still pretty pathetic, those stats are no longer of historic proportions.

An interception by Ike Taylor, not the first of his career although it seemed like it, and a fumble recovery by Brett Keisel accounted for the other Steelers takeaways. They needed all four of those turnovers to serve as a masking agent for everything that's wrong with this team.

The Chiefs gained just 90 yards on 34 carries, less than three yards a carry. But the Steelers' run defense seems to have a soft underbelly. They just don't seem to be stopping the run like they used to.

The Steelers offense was shut out in the second half for the third time this season. It didn't help that they were just 3 for 11 on third down. Rashard Mendenhall had his first bad game since Arizona, rushing for 57 yards on 17 carries, an average of 3.4 yards per carry.

How did this team beat the Patriots?

For the Steelers to win the AFC North, they're going to have to run the table and hope for one more Ravens loss. Or if they lose one, they'll need two Ravens losses. Right now, the Steelers don't look like a team that can run the table. If they play the way they did Sunday, there's at least a couple more losses down the road.

But like they did in Indianapolis and at home against Jacksonville, they played well enough to beat the team they played Sunday.

That's all that really matters.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Steelers win: My first 100 (or so) words

Well, not exactly the kind of performance needed to raise the Lombardi Trophy now, is it?

But, all the Steelers had to do Sunday was beat the Chiefs, and they completed that assignment, 13-9.

However, a championship team doesn't let Tyler Palko come that close to beating them. That's almost as bad as letting Curtis Painter tie the game on you in the final two minutes.

Oh, wait. That happened, too, didn't it?

There's a lot that needs to be fixed.

Halftime report: Steelers 13, Chiefs 6

5 Strange Things from the First Half

1. Troy Polamalu said "four" when they asked him what city he was in.

2. Maurkice Pouncey is puking in the locker room (probably).

3. Mewelde Moore is leading the Steelers in receptions with three.

4. Shaun Suisham kicked a long field goal.

5. The Steelers have forced half as many turnovers tonight as they have in the first 10 games.

Steelers-Chiefs: It's that time of year again

Oh what a day

Late November down in Kansas City

What a very shitty time for me

This bastardization of The Four Seasons' "Oh, What a Night" does not mean I'm predicting a Steelers' loss tonight at Arrowhead Stadium. I'm not even talking about tonight (notice the "Oh what a day" and not "Oh what a night"). I'm talking about what happened to the Steelers two years ago in Kansas City.

The Steelers entered the game 6-3 and lost 27-24 in overtime to the Chiefs, who were in the midst of a 4-12 season. It was the second of five straight losses for the Steelers, and we all know the rest of the story.

After dropping to 6-3 this season, the Steelers won two weeks ago and nixed a remake of the 2009 script. They're coming off a win and not a loss as they enter KC.

Still, by sending the Steelers to Kansas City in late November, just like they did two years ago, the NFL schedule makers are acting like that weasel of a teacher who keeps putting the same trick question into his tests until you get it right.

The Steelers need to stomp this demon to truly put 2009 in the past.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Steelers Bye Week

Giving Thanks and Wanting Stuff

Since the NFL started instituting bye weeks in 1990, this is the latest the Steelers have had theirs.

This bye is so late that it runs through Thanksgiving, and by the time the Steelers play their next game Nov. 27 at Kansas City, the Christmas shopping season will be well under way. For that matter, who among us this week hasn't seen Christmas decorations on light posts or heard Christmas carols at WalMart?

So let's be grateful and greedy. Let's give thanks and then tell Steeler Claus what we want under our tree this year.

Six Things Steelers Fans Are Thankful For:

1. Ben Roethlisberger's Toughness:
As long as his head is attached to his shoulders, No. 7 will be calling signals. Good thing, too, because while the Steelers' offensive line seems to be getting better, there's still a lot of room for improvement. Now Roethlisberger's got a broken thumb, but says he won't miss any time. Seems to me throwing a football with a broken thumb is like driving a car without a steering wheel. No matter what happens to Roethlisberger's body, he always gets up and keeps playing. Let's not take that for granted. Throughout his career, Roethlisberger's never been called the "best" quarterback in the NFL. There's always been a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning and now an Aaron Rodgers in front of him. But I challenge anyone to find a tougher, more durable quarterback.

2. 2009's History: It was a scary case of deja vu, a lot of spooky parallels to the Steel Market Crash of 2009. The 2011 Steelers started 6-2, then lost at home to a division opponent. In 2009 they started 6-2 then lost at home to the Bengals to start a five-game losing streak. In both 2009 and 2011, the Steelers had the Bengals and Chiefs back-to-back on their schedule. But the Steelers prevented a re-enactment of 2009 by beating the Bengals last week. That doesn't mean the Steelers still can't collapse this season. But at least there won't be any desperate talk of unleashing hell in December, especially if the Steelers can take care of business against the Tyler Palko-led Chiefs.

3. Antonio Brown's Rise:
It was third-and-19 when Brown went all David Tyree and pinned the ball against his helmet to set up the game-winning touchdown in last season's playoff game against the Ravens. It was third-and-19 from the Steelers' 15 last Sunday when Brown caught a 21-yard pass to keep a field goal drive going after the Bengals had narrowed the Steelers' lead to 14-10. Let's just call him Third Down Brown. He leads the AFC with 18 third-down catches and 282 third-down yards. You could argue he is the Steelers' best receiver. Mike Wallace catches the home run balls and has learned to catch passes in traffic, but Brown can make the circus catches. His Tyree-like catch last January was just the beginning.

4. Hines Ward's Maturity: Perhaps Ward was on to something when he dressed like a cheerleader on "Dancing with the Stars." With his drop to No. 4 on the Steelers' wide receiver depth chart, Ward said he'll be the Steelers' biggest cheerleader. How many other players, especially wide receivers, would say that? Ward always has stood apart from other divas at his position with his hard-nosed blocking. Now he's setting another example by putting the team ahead of himself. He needs 30 receiving yards to reach 12,000 for his career. He'll probably get that. But he needs 19 more catches to reach 1,000 for his career. He'd have to average more than three catches a game in the Steelers' six remaining games . That might not happen. Something tells me, however, that Ward's still got some key catches left in him, and if someone gets hurt, he'll be ready to step in.

5. Troy Polamalu's Health: Unlike Ben Roethlisberger, we never take Polamalu's health for granted. He's missed at least some time the last two seasons with injuries. So far, so good this year. Except for his fumble recovery and touchdown that helped the Steelers beat the Colts (how embarrassing would it be now if the Steelers had lost that game?), Polamalu hasn't made any "splash" plays on defense. That doesn't mean he's not playing well, however. He's got 62 tackles through 10 games this season. Last season, he had 63 tackles in 14 games. He made 73 tackles in 2008, the last time he played a 16-game season. So Polamalu is still making an impact. I'd love to see another 16-game season (and beyond) out of him.

6. Max Starks' Availability:
It's a damn good thing no one signed Starks. Tell me again why the Steelers didn't want to start the season with him? There are probably better left tackles in the NFL than Starks, but Jonathan Scott sure as hell isn't one of them. In the Steelers' first four games, Roethlisberger was sacked 14 times, putting him on pace to be sacked 56 times this season. Roethlisberger's been sacked 17 times in the six weeks since Starks returned. Now the Steelers have a shot at keeping Roethlisberger's sack total under 50 this season. Starks has helped stabilize the Steelers' offensive line. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert really should be thankful that no one signed Starks. It helped them undo a major personnel blunder.

Six Things Steelers Fans Want for Christmas:

1. LaMarr Woodley Back: Move over, Reggie Jackson. Woodley was this year's Mr. October. He registered 7.5 of his nine sacks during the month before going down with a hamstring injury. Woodley's performance helped fuel the Steelers' four-game winning streak. Even without his sacks, the Steelers sacked up and beat the Bengals last Sunday. They also should be able to beat the Chiefs without Woodley if his hamstring needs another week. But there won't be a lot of January football this season if they don't get Mr. October back.

2. Antonio Brown Special Teams Touchdown:
We can't ask for much more from Brown this season, but there is one more thing Brown can do for us. At some point the Steelers might need a touchdown on special teams. Brown is tied for second in the NFL with five punt returns of 20-plus yards. The 49ers' Ted Ginn has seven. Brown is only averaging 11 yards per punt return, however, because of all his fair catches. In the first NFL game Brown suited up for, he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown last season in Week 2 at Tennessee. He's due for another special teams touchdown.

3. Pro Bowl for Ike Taylor: Let's get Ike Taylor lei-ed. The Pro Bowl is back in Hawaii this year, and Ike Taylor deserves to be there. Of course, we don't want Taylor to actually go to the Pro Bowl, because that would mean the Steelers won't be playing in Super Bowl XLVI the following week. We just want him to be invited. Seeing the way Taylor's played this season, it's hard to believe he's never been to a Pro Bowl. It's because he doesn't get a lot of interceptions (just 11 in his nine-year career). Hopefully this year he can prove that you don't need "ball skills" to get lei-ed.

4. More Ravens Losses: With no Steelers game to watch this Sunday, let's all take an orange salad bowl, draw black stripes on it with a magic marker, put it on our head and pretend we're Bengals fans. The Steelers still can win the AFC North and maybe get a first-round bye in the playoffs, which has benefited them in their last two trips to the Super Bowl. The Steelers just need the Ravens to lose one more game than they do the rest of the way. That means if the Steelers run the table, they'll still need the Ravens to lose one more. If the Steelers go 5-1, they'll need the Ravens to lose two more. The Ravens have followed up both of their wins over the Steelers with losses, and there also was that loss to Jacksonville. At least when the Steelers lose, they lose to decent teams. Despite their three losses, the Steelers look like a team that can beat anyone. The Ravens have shown they can lose to anyone.

5. Faith in Shaun Suisham: Maybe I'm being too hard on Suisham. He's made nine of his last 10 field goals, including a key 39-yarder against a stiff wind in Cincinnati. He's 16 for 21 this season. But is Suisham the guy you want attempting, say, a 42-yard field goal with the Steelers down by three points with three seconds left in a playoff game? I didn't think so. Some clutch kicks from Suisham would be a nice Christmas gift.

6. Century Club Membership for Rashard Mendenhall:
We really can't complain about Mendenhall's performance in the last three games. He's not used much because the Steelers are a pass-first team. Against the Patriots and Ravens, he had a combined 112 yards on 26 carries. That's 4.3 yards per carry. He had just 44 yards on 16 carries against the Bengals, but showed a real nose for the goal line on his two touchdown runs. With the weather getting colder and maybe snowier, the Steelers might need a few 100-yard rushing games from Mendenhall, who can be a fun running back to watch when he's got it all together.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Week 10: Steelers 24, Bengals 17

Steelers back in 1st place 

The Steelers have joined the Occupy First Place movement.

It seemed the Steelers would never again set foot in the AFC North's top spot after their loss to the Ravens last week.

But what did I tell you about the Ravens? I said last week that a loss Sunday in Seattle wouldn't surprise me at all. They conquered their black and gold demons by completing a season sweep of the Steelers, then Sunday it was Letdown City.

The Ravens' 22-17 loss to the Seahawks, combined with the Steelers' 24-17 win over the Bengals in Cincinnati, gave the Steelers (7-3) a half-game lead over the Bengals (6-3) and Ravens (6-3).

Because of their bye next week, there's nothing the Steelers can do if the Ravens win in Cincinnati. It would put Baltimore back in first by virtue of the tiebreaker, but for now the Steelers are occupying first place, protesting the Ravens' crowning as division champs.

Ooh, that smell

William Gay is doing a lot more than just occupying the starting cornerback job opposite Ike Taylor. He took a big leap in securing that role Sunday.

A Steelers defense that couldn't protect 92 yards in the final two minutes against the Ravens had only 49 yards behind it with four-and-a-half minutes to go Sunday. The Steelers led by seven, so the smell of overtime was in the air.

Then Gay freshened the scent.

The Bengals got to the Steelers' 25 when the fifth-year cornerback made his second career interception, jumping the route on a pass from rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to Jerome Simpson.

The Steelers got a couple of first downs from there to run out the clock. The final one came on a pass in the flat to Mike Wallace, who caught six passes for 54 yards. Considering how lah-di-dah Ben Roethlisberger has been on some of his passes in the flat this season (see Terrell Suggs), I think there might have been safer play calls in that situation. There was nothing but green turf in front of Nate Clements if he had somehow intercepted that ball.

Thankfully, it's a play call no one will remember.

Among the things Steelers fans will remember about Sunday's game is Gay's performance.

The Steelers' third-down defense sprung a few leaks against the Ravens, but Gay helped patch that up by ensuring three-and-outs on the Bengals' first two possessions Sunday. He broke up a third-down pass on the Bengals' first possession. Then on the first play of the Bengals' next series, he turned a completion into an incompletion by knocking the ball, and maybe a little snot, from Simpson after Simpson caught the ball.

Both of those defensive stands were followed by touchdowns. The first one was a 16-yard reception by Jerricho Cotchery, his first TD as a Steeler. The second was a 2-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall that gave the Steelers a 14-0, first-quarter lead.

Discipline on defense 

Just when it seemed like the good ol' days, when the Steelers could walk into Cincinnati and do whatever they wanted, the Bengals reminded everyone that this season might be one of those once-every-few-years reprieves from all those 4-12s and 5-11s of autumns past. These cats had enough fight to eventually tie the game 17-17 in the third quarter.

The Steelers regained the lead when Mendenhall again showed some goal-line grit, breaking free from numerous Bengal claws for a 9-yard TD run to give the Steelers a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter.

It didn't seem like a lead that would last for 17 minutes. Not on a day when the Steelers looked sloppy with their tackling, allowing 4.1 rushing yards per carry. Not on a day when the Steelers were penning another chapter in their historic tale of turnover futility. 

Gay wasn't feeling so generous.

On first-and-10 from the Steelers' 47, Gay broke up a pass intended for Andre Caldwell and rerouted it into the hands of Lawrence Timmons with about 12 minutes left in the game.

Gay's own pick later gave the Steelers their first multiple-takeaway game of the season. Good thing, too, because while there have been days this season when the Steelers' defense was good enough to win without forcing turnovers, Sunday was not one of those days.

Let's not forget that the Steelers didn't have to worry about A.J. Green for three quarters of the game. The Bengals were right back in the game at 14-7 when the rookie speedster split the double team of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark for a 36-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. This being Cincinnati, Clark went a little Kimo von Oelhoffen and rolled into Green's knee after the play, taking him out of the game.

Clark clearly did not hurt Green's knee on purpose, yet provided the Steelers a little unintended help on that play. He also helped by breaking his streak of consecutive games with a 15-yard personal foul. A little discipline goes a long way. 

Considering how suspect the Steelers' defense looked Sunday, I can't help but think that Green might have made a difference had he not been limited to the Bengals' Sideline Spinning class for the rest of the afternoon.

As they battle for AFC North supremacy, the Steelers are in an equally tenacious fight with the Dolphins to avoid a dubious place in history. They're still tied with the Dolphins for fewest takeaways in the NFL, and the Dolphins have played only nine games. The Steelers' six forced turnovers are still the fewest in NFL history through 10 games. But perhaps the better job Gay is doing at cornerback will help them turn the corner in that department.

What can Brown do for you?

Let's hope Gay's breakout follows a trajectory similar to that of Antonio Brown.

Of Brown's 44 catches this season, 26 have come in the past four weeks. He caught five for 86 yards Sunday, including four for 74 yards on a second-quarter drive that resulted in a 39-yard Shaun Suisham field goal and a 17-10 Steelers lead. 

The Steelers faced a lot of obstacles on that 16-play, 87-yard drive, including a gimme sack after Roethlisberger lost his shoe. Roethlisberger was sacked again a play later, and the Steelers faced a third-and-19. No problem. Brown took care of that with one of his two 21-yard receptions on the drive. The other one put the ball on the Bengals' 13, well within Shaun Suisham's field goal range.

Speaking of Suisham, maybe even he's getting his ass in gear. He's now made 16 of his 21 field goals, and that 39-yarder in the whipping Cincinnati wind wasn't exactly a chip shot.

Gay, Brown, Suisham and the rest of the Steelers have earned their week off. Maybe they can spend it being Bengals fans so they can occupy first place for another week.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Steelers win: My first 100 (or so) words

See? Was that so hard? The Steelers finally won a turnover battle, using two fourth-quarter interceptions to preserve a seven-point lead and beat the Bengals 24-17.

So everyone breathe a sigh of relief. This WON'T be another 2009. The Steelers (7-3) won't lose five in a row after starting 6-2.

William Gay's pick saved the game for the Steelers. After that, he appeared to have a nice little sideline conversation with Ike Taylor. Anyone else hoping he was teaching Ike how to catch?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Week 9: Ravens 23, Steelers 20

Substandard defense

I know Pittsburgh poet laureate Mike Tomlin says "The standard is the standard." 

But I'm a little worried that LaMarr Woodley might be the new "Steelers defense isn't the same without him" guy, inheriting that honor from Troy Polamalu.

Joe Flacco's 26-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds left gave the Ravens a 23-20 win over the Steelers Sunday night. The pass completed a 92-yard drive that began with 2:24 left in the game.

The failure of the Steelers' defense was not limited to the last two minutes. All night, the unit was more accommodating than the staff at the Omni William Penn, particularly on third down, where the Steelers allowed the Ravens to keep drives alive 14 of 21 times.

Woodley's absence didn't help. He's out with a hamstring injury. Who knows when he'll be back? Those hamstrings can be tricky.

But, the standard is the standard, right?

Well, not really.

The Steelers showed that Tomlin's mantra is nothing more than hot air when they collapsed in 2009 when Polamalu went down.

Polamalu patrolled the gridiron Sunday night, but the hair didn't scare the Ravens. On their winning drive, an incompletion bounced off Ray Rice's hands, and Polamalu was so tantalizingly close to an interception, but just not where he needed to be. We seem to be seeing that a lot lately, going back to Super Bowl XLV. Could it be that at 30 Polamalu's no longer fast enough to get to a ball hanging in the air?

During the Steelers' four-game winning streak that was snapped Sunday night, Woodley was the transcendent player that Polamalu used to be. Of his nine sacks this year, seven-and-a-half came during that quarter-season stretch.

Sure, James Harrison came back with a vengeance, sacking Joe Flacco three times and forcing a fumble that William Gay recovered. But he couldn't do it by himself. No one else sacked Flacco, and that one turnover wasn't enough, especially when the Steelers committed two (technically, the second one came on a fumble by Mike Wallace on the final play of the game).

Woodley didn't get his ass in gear this season until after Harrison hurt his eye in Week 4 at Houston. So the outside linebacker tandem of Harrison and Woodley has yet to be on the field together at peak level this season.

Perhaps that's the reason the Steelers have forced just four turnovers in nine games. This year's Dolphins, who just got their first win Sunday, are the only other team in the history of the NFL with four takeaways through nine games.

We're past the point of this turnover drought being some statistical quirk. We're past the "Oh, the turnovers will come" stage. Something is missing from this Steelers defense.

Too good to be true

It's too bad Steelers defenders not named James Harrison let the team down, because Sunday night was the finest hour for some Steelers, and it was all in vain.

Jerricho Cotchery had his best game as a Steeler, catching three passes for 44 yards, including a third-down conversion with less than four minutes left when the Steelers were trying to protect a 20-16 lead.

Cotchery and his Jets teammates came damn close to dancing on the Heinz Field turf last January. The way he played Sunday, it sure was nice to see him wearing the mustard yellow of the Steelers retro uniforms and not green and white.

For that matter, the Ravens could have had him, too. Imagine how bad the Steelers' defense would have looked Sunday if Flacco had Cotchery as an option?

The Steelers were thin at receiver with Emmanuel Sanders out and Hines Ward hurt early in the game. The Steelers needed Cotchery to finally be a factor, and he answered the call.

Also rising to the occasion, and then some, of this crucial AFC North showdown was the Steelers' offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just once. He didn't even have to live up to his nickname, The Grimace, because he wasn't touched enough to show any pain on his face. When will we ever see that again?

Even Rashard Mendenhall averaged four yards a carry, rushing 13 times for 52 yards. He hasn't been used all that much over the past two weeks, but when called upon he's averaged 4.3 yards per carry.

No, Mendenhall wasn't the running back who made us reach for the Tums this week. Unfortunately, it was Mewelde Moore.

You always can count on Moore to come off the bench and make a big catch when the Steelers are trying to run out the clock with a lead.

Until Sunday.

On third-and-5 from the Ravens' 29, Moore didn't turn around in time to catch a pass from Roethlisberger. Had he caught the ball, the Steelers would have had a first down with 2:37 left. Instead, Shaun Suisham lined up for a 46-yard field goal attempt.

Does anyone really trust Suisham from 46 yards?

Well, apparently the Steelers don't either, because a delay of game penalty forced the Steelers to punt. I can't help but wonder if that penalty was on purpose. Perhaps they figured Suisham would miss, giving the Ravens the ball at about the 36-yard line. Better to give Jeremy Kapinos more room to punt and try to pin the Ravens deep.

Well, the Ravens had to start at their own 8 needing a touchdown. A championship-level defense doesn't allow a touchdown in that situation.

In fairness, the Steelers forced the Ravens' second three-and-out of the game on their previous possession, with less than five minutes left. They shouldn't have had to take the field again.

But like the honor society student who comes home with a big, red "F" on his paper, Moore disappointed us.

Let's complete the confluence of blame by giving Roethlisberger his share. What did he do to thank his offensive line for keeping him clean and pretty much taming Terrell Suggs? He threw a lollipop that Suggs picked off on the Steelers' first possession of the second half.

Trailing 9-6, the Steelers drove to the Ravens' 14 when Roethlisberger tried to find Wallace in the flat. The ball floated like a balloon and Suggs intercepted it, sparking a Ravens' touchdown drive and a 16-6 deficit the Steelers had to overcome.

Before the interception, neither team had scored a touchdown, which made that drive seem too good to be true.

You know what they say when something seems too good to be true.

Damage control

I'm wondering why the Ravens weren't sporting AFC North Champions caps with the tags still on them after the game. After all, Sunday's game was touted as the game that would decide the AFC North, right?

OK, it's not bloody likely the Steelers will win the division. That first-round bye the Steelers have had on their way to their last two Super Bowls? We probably can kiss that goodbye.

All that said, divisions aren't won in early November. Yes, the Ravens (6-2) own the tiebreaker over the Steelers (6-3). But it's not impossible for the Steelers to finish with a better record than the Ravens.

None of the Steelers' three losses this season have been what you would call "What the Fuck?" losses. They've lost to the Ravens and Texans, both teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

The Ravens, on the other hand, have lost to the Titans (4-4) and Jaguars (2-6), the latter being a true "WTF?" loss. The Steelers haven't lost to bad teams this year. Not yet, anyway. The Ravens have.

That loss at Tennessee came the week after the Ravens trampled the Steelers in the opener. They had that opener circled on their calender since the NFL Network's schedule show in April. That loss in Tennessee had letdown written all over it.

The Ravens are at Seattle Sunday. Do the Seahawks suck? Yes. But Seattle is a tough place to play, and the Ravens have proven this season to be more prone to upsets than the Steelers.

After that, the only really easy games left on the Ravens' schedule are at Indianapolis and home to Cleveland. They still have to play the Bengals (6-2) twice. They have to go to San Diego. And coach John Harbaugh's little brother Jim will bring his 49ers (6-1) to Baltimore.

Not that the Steelers have an easy schedule. They, too, have two games against the Bengals, who also might have something to say about who wins the AFC North. The Steelers have to go to Kansas City (not as scary considering the Dolphins won there Sunday) and San Francisco, where they will try to prevent the Harbaugh Hat Trick.

No matter what happens, though, the Steelers will need to do some scoreboard watching. Now, even if they win the rest of their games, it might not be enough to win the division. Imagine being 13-3 and having to go on the road for a wild card game?

This is the fourth straight season the Steelers have dropped to 6-3 after going 6-2 at the halfway point. They dusted themselves off and got to the Super Bowl in 2008 and 2010. But in 2009, it was the beginning of the end.

So now it's all about damage control. That starts Sunday in Cincinnati. If the Steelers lose there, mediocrity beckons.

Steelers lose: My first 100 (or so) words

Well I guess that means the Ravens are the AFC North champions, right?

Sunday's game was billed as the game that would decide the division.

Well, it's hard to win a division in early November. It will be very difficult, but not impossible, for the Steelers to win the division.

Right now, however, the Ravens are the better team. They've beaten the Steelers twice this season, and basically have the Steelers defense figured out. They were 14 of 21 on third-down conversions and methodically marched down the field when they needed 92 yards in the final two minutes.

The 23 points the Ravens scored were the most allowed by the Steelers defense since the 35 the Ravens scored in the opener.

The Steelers don't usually lose twice to a division opponent in the same season. The last time it happened was 2009 when they lost to the Bengals twice. In 2006, they lost to the Ravens twice. What do those two seasons have in common? The Steelers didn't make the playoffs either year.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ravens-Steelers halftime

Halftime: Ravens 9, Steelers 6

You get the feeling the first team to score a touchdown is going to win this game?

Here are three things I like from the first half and three things I don't like.

Things I like:
  1. Steelers are stopping Ray Rice: He's got 26 yards on 12 carries.
  2. Rashard Mendenhall: I know he's only got 18 yards on five carries. But I just like the way he looks and think he can be a factor in the second half.
  3. Offensive line: I know Ben Roethlisberger got sacked, forcing the Steelers to kick a field goal. But one sack in a half isn't bad. Especially with Terrell Suggs lurking.

Thinks I don't like:

  1. Steelers' defense on third down: Can't find the stats. But I know it sucks.
  2. No turnovers: No longer am I the lone voice in the wilderness on this. NBC had a graphic demonstrating the Steelers' turnover futility. Of course they don't jinx that.
  3. Steelers' kickoff coverage: David Reed had a couple of long ones.

Good omen for Steelers?

Oh, Danny boy.

Once again, Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda is out for the season.

Could this actually be good news for the Steelers?

Since the Steelers foolishly used a fourth-round draft pick on a punter to take Sepulveda in 2007, he has finished just two seasons, 2007 and 2009. In 2008 and 2010, Sepulveda went on injured reserve with a right-leg injury, and the Steelers went to the Super Bowl both times.

It's almost as if an off-the-street punter is a good-luck charm for the Steelers in their Super Bowl seasons. In 2008, it was Mitch Berger. Last season, it was Jeremy Kapinos, and they signed Kapinos again Saturday.

I think the Steelers got all they could out of Sepulveda this season, anyway. After all, that one punt last week against the Patriots probably took a lot out of him.

Linebacker update

Enough about punters. Let's talk about real, you know, football players. In this case, let's talk about linebackers.

James Harrison probably will play tonight against the Ravens. James Farrior is a maybe. LaMarr Woodley is out.

If the Steelers lose this game, it shouldn't be because Woodley is out, even though he has nine sacks this season. Jason Worilds is expected to return from injury and start at left outside linebacker opposite Harrison. Worilds is a second-round draft pick in his second year. So it's about time he shows us something.
Wonders never cease 

Former Steelers general manager Tom Donahoe said this week that the Steelers' offense seems to struggle against stout defenses. The last time the Steelers' offense was really tested, it was shut out in the second half against the Jaguars.

This, of course, would be a concern tonight. The Steelers go from facing the Patriots' defense, which is the worst in the NFL, to the Ravens' defense, which is the best.

It's amazing how things change in a week. Last week, we wondered if the Steelers' defense could handle a legitimate offense like that of the Patriots. Now, we're wondering if the Steelers' offense can handle a legitimate defense.

Even if the Steelers win tonight at Heinz Field, we'll probably wonder if they can beat a good team on the road. But that hopefully wouldn't matter, because they'd have the inside track on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

That's how big tonight's game is.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ravens-Steelers preview

How to beat the Ravens

Last week at this time, it seemed we were all scratching our head trying to figure out how the Steelers could beat the Patriots.

We were almost like fictional New Englander Will Hunting in front of a chalkboard.

Professor LeBeau solved the problem by frequently using six defensive backs and covering each receiver man-to-man.

No such mathematical formula will be needed this week.

Steelers, you know how to beat the Ravens. Just go out and do it.