2008 Season: Campaign Season

Heads up

Steelers 31, Browns 0

By Mike Batista
December 29, 2008

It was so quiet in Pittsburgh you could almost hear the wind in Buffalo.

A week after Titans players wiped their feet and blew their noses on the Terrible Towel, Steelers fans found another use for it. They held it to their mouths as Ben Roethlisberger lay on the Heinz Field turf late in the first half of Sunday’s game against the Browns.

The silence was broken only when Roethlisberger gave a thumbs-up while being wheeled off the field after being on the ground for nearly 15 minutes.

Now we all can breathe a sigh of relief stronger than any Lake Erie current. Roethlisberger has a concussion, which is the best news we could have hoped for. The scene had spinal-cord injury written all over it, what with the summoning of emergency personnel, the unscrewing of the face mask and the use of the stabilizing board.

This makes the Steelers’ first-round bye that much more significant. The last time Roethlisberger had a concussion, he came back a week later and threw four interceptions – two of which were returned for touchdowns – in a 20-13 loss to the lowly Raiders in 2006.

Chances are Roethlisberger will be ready to go when the Steelers host an AFC divisional playoff game at 4:45 p.m. on Jan. 11. But let’s just say that he’s not. In fact, let’s look into the abyss and imagine that Roethlisberger was out for the playoffs.

If the Steelers are going to win the Super Bowl, it’s their defense that’s going to have to carry them anyway. While looking at the TV and taking solace in any limb movement by Roethlisberger, I thought of the 1990 Giants. They won the Super Bowl with Jeff Hostetler, Phil Simms’ backup, winning all three postseason games.

That doesn’t mean the Steelers are better off with Byron Leftwich than Roethlisberger. It just means that Leftwich is there if the Steelers need him.

According to the stat sheet, the large asses of the Steelers’ offensive linemen appear to be covered. They didn’t allow a sack Sunday. That means they did a good job protecting Roethlisberger, right? Uh, not quite. The way the offensive line has played this season, did we not envision something like this happening to Roethlisberger? Last week I wrote that the offensive line is like a crack in the windshield of an otherwise smooth-running car. I guess that was putting it lightly.

Roethlisberger has learned his lesson when it comes to riding a motorcycle without a helmet, but there’s nothing he can do about driving without a seat belt. That’s what playing behind that offensive line is like.

Other than Chris Kemoeatu’s leading blocks on two of the Steelers’ touchdowns, all the O-Line accomplished Sunday was avoiding the dubious 50-sack milestone. They allowed 49 sacks this season. That means that on the first day of the 2009 NFL draft, the Steelers are not allowed to draft anyone weighing less than 300 pounds. When the Steelers’ season ends, Roethlisberger will have seven years remaining on his eight-year, $102 million contract, and he’s already had two concussions. They need offensive linemen. And if Tony Hills is going to fill Alan Faneca’s No. 66 jersey, maybe he should start filling his shoes, too. Speaking of Faneca, where do you think he’ll be watching the playoffs?

Anyway, despite the dance with disaster, I can’t argue with Mike Tomlin’s decision to play Sunday’s game like it meant something. The Steelers’ record in home playoff games is bad enough. They don’t need to go up against the Colts, Chargers or Dolphins after three weeks without meaningful football.

The Steelers certainly didn’t earn a Sunday afternoon in the hammock after their performance against the Titans. For Willie Parker in particular, it was no time to rest. The Steelers’ running game got a much-needed tune-up. Parker gained 116 yards on 23 carries, with a 34-yard touchdown run, against the Browns 28th-ranked rushing defense. Running behind a fullback in the I-formation more than usual, Parker broke the century mark for the first time since Nov. 16 against San Diego.

You don’t win football games in January without a solid running game, especially if Roethlisberger is a little wobbly.

How sweet is home?

Titans 31, Steelers 14

By Mike Batista
December 21, 2008

Did we really want the Steelers to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs?

For the Steelers, getting the No. 1 seed in the AFC would have been like getting a shiny new sports car. It looks nice, but you’re afraid to scratch it.

The Steelers don’t exactly have a clean driving record as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They haven’t won the Super Bowl in that position since 1978. Since then, they’ve had the top seed in 1992 (lost in AFC divisional playoffs), 1994 (lost AFC championship), 2001 (lost AFC championship) and 2004 (lost AFC championship).

Since 2001, the Steelers are 3-3 in home playoff games, with the only convincing win a 27-10 decision over the Ravens in 2001.

With their loss to the Titans Sunday, the Steelers are settled in as the No. 2 playoff seed. That means the highest-seeded wild-card survivor will come to Heinz Field Jan. 10 or 11. If the Steelers win that game, they’ll either stay home for the AFC championship or go back to LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., where they can win if they don’t commit four turnovers.

Not only did Ben Roethlisberger fumble the ball four times – losing it twice – and throw two interceptions, but the defense allowed more than 300 yards for the first time this season (323).

The numbers, however, were the least of the Steelers’ worries.

First, James Harrison went down in the first quarter and walked into the locker room. He hurt his hip, but returned to the game.

Then Roethlisberger took a hit on the head as he fumbled at the Titans’ 1-yard line. He was shaken up, and Byron Leftwich had his helmet on and was ready to go. But Roethlisberger was back in there for the next series.

Then Mewelde Moore was slow to get up after a run in the second quarter, but stayed in the game.

Finally, with the game out of reach, Ryan Clark was hurt. He walked off the field with a Steelers staff member holding his arm as if it were broken. His right shoulder was separated earlier in the season, and he left the stadium in a sling. He said he was OK, but we’ll have to wait and see.

For Ring No. 6 to be a possibility, the Steelers will need Clark in the playoffs.

The unheralded free safety might have been burned on Kerry Collins’ second-quarter touchdown pass to Justin Gage Sunday. But the thought of Anthony Smith or Tyrone Carter back there is ulcer-inducing. Need I remind anyone of Smith at Gillette Stadium last season? Or Carter vs. David Garrard in the playoffs?

The Steelers were 6-6 without Clark last season, including the wild-card loss to Jacksonville. He gets things done on defense without a lot of fanfare. If I could buy one Steelers jersey, I’d have a tough time deciding between Hines Ward and Clark.

While we hold out hope that Clark is healthy, there’s little hope the Steelers will enter the playoffs with a competent offensive line.

That line, which allowed five sacks Sunday and has yielded 49 this season, is like a crack in a windshield. The car’s engine might be fine and the tires could be brand new. But with that crack, it will never pass inspection, and eventually it’s going to be pulled over.

Stuck in the breakdown lane right now is the Steelers’ ground game. Maybe we’re starting to see why Willie Parker couldn’t start at North Carolina. He gained just 29 yards on 18 carries. If you take away his long run of 13 yards, he had less than a yard a carry. Mewelde Moore nearly matched Parker with 28 yards, and needed just three carries to do it. For some reason, though, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin kept running the wheels off of Parker.

Meanwhile, Jeff Fisher showed why he’s been able to keep his job as Titans coach for 14 years. His team trailed 14-10 in the third quarter and faced fourth-and-inches from the Steelers’ 21. With the Steelers dug in at the line of scrimmage like pigs at a trough, Collins pitched outside to Chris Johnson, who glided into the end zone to give the Titans a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

The Steelers’ run defense has sprung some leaks the last couple of weeks. They allowed 112 yards on the ground against the Ravens and 117 against the Titans. They also let the Titans off the hook again on fourth down when Collins threw to Gage for 17 yards to the Steelers’ 13 on fourth-and-3. It looked like it would stay a one-possession game, however, when the Titans lined up for a field goal from the 4. But Chris Hoke was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. Supposedly he yelled “hut, hut” on defense.

The infraction gave the Titans a first down at the 2. A pair of 1-yard runs by LenDale White added up to a touchdown and a 24-14 Titans lead at the start of the fourth quarter.

That touchdown drive started on the Steelers’ 37 after Michael Griffin intercepted Roethlisberger. Griffin’s second interception came in the game’s final minute, and he zig-zagged 83 yards through a stunned Steelers offense for a touchdown to ensure the Titans that they’ll be sleeping in their own beds in January.

Hope it works out for them the same way it’s worked out for the Steelers.

Cover boys

By Mike Batista
December 18, 2008

The Steelers’ opponents seem to get tougher and tougher every week.

First it was the Patriots, a team that had been in their heads. Then it was the Cowboys, revitalized with the return of Tony Romo. Then it was the Ravens, the only other team in the league with a defense that came close to their own.

The Steelers beat them all. But now they face an opponent even more formidable:

The Sports Illustrated cover jinx.

That’s right, the Steelers are on the cover of this week’s SI, a shot of LaMarr Woodley slamming Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to the turf.

That’s just great. Who needs to worry about the offensive line or the punting when the specter of the cover jinx looms?

But before we resign ourselves to another January disappointment, let’s take a look at how this urban legend has affected the Steelers. Let’s play Jinx or No Jinx.

Oct. 11, 1971: I was two months old the first time the Steelers appeared on the cover of SI. Mike Tomlin wasn’t even born yet. It was a photo of Mean Joe Greene, “Pittsburgh’s Man of Steel.” Greene made the Pro Bowl that season. NO JINX

Jan. 8, 1973: The Dolphins beat the Steelers in the AFC championship game during their perfect season, and the cover featured a photo of Mercury Morris zooming past Jack Ham. This cover does not qualify (DNQ) for a jinx since it came after a Steelers playoff loss, when they were already at a low point.

July 29, 1974: A profile of Terry Bradshaw. The magazine ran excerpts from Roy Blount Jr.’s “About Three Bricks Shy of a Load,” a book that chronicled the 1973 season. Bradshaw lost his starting job to Joe Gilliam. JINX

Sept. 23, 1974: Gilliam, after leading the Steelers over the Colts in the season opener. Gilliam lost the starting job to Bradshaw after six games, and was out of the league by the end of the 1975 season. Gilliam would have problems with drugs and alcohol, but was sober for four years before attending the final game at Three Rivers Stadium – nine days before his death. JINX

Jan. 6, 1975: Franco Harris after the Steelers beat the Raiders in the playoffs. NO JINX

Jan. 20, 1975: Terry Bradshaw, even though the story focused on the defense, after the Steelers beat the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. A lame Super Bowl cover, but NO JINX

Sept. 22, 1975: Profile of Mean Joe for the season preview issue. NO JINX

Jan. 12, 1976: Harris after the Steelers beat the Raiders in the playoffs. NO JINX

Jan. 26, 1976: A shot of Lynn Swann’s circus catch in Super Bowl X against the Cowboys. NO JINX

Dec. 6, 1976: Sam Davis blocking for Rocky Bleier in the snow against the Bengals. Bleier injured his toe in a playoff win over Baltimore, and missed the following week’s playoff game against the Raiders. Harris was also out for that game, and Frenchy Fuqua saw limited action. The Raiders beat the running-back depleted Steelers, ending their two-year reign as Super Bowl champions. JINX

Jan. 3, 1977: Mel Blount and Glen Edwards trying to bring down Clarence Davis in the playoff loss to the Raiders. DNQ

Jan. 15, 1979: Bradshaw slipping and sliding in the rain in an AFC championship game win over the Oilers. NO JINX

Jan. 29, 1979: Bleier catching a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII against the Cowboys. NO JINX

Dec. 24, 1979: Bradshaw and Willie Stargell being named Sportsmen of the Year, with Stargell putting stars on Bradshaw’s helmet. NO JINX

Jan. 29, 1980: John Stallworth against the Rams in Super Bowl XIV. NO JINX

Sept. 8, 1980: Probably one of SI’s worst covers ever. For the season preview issue, a photo of an unidentified Steelers player trying to cover whoever No. 85 was for the Browns. The play happened on an area of baseball dirt on the field at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. That made the yellow headlines on the bottom half of the cover barely readable. After winning four Super Bowls in six seasons, the Steelers slumped to 9-7 in 1980 and missed the playoffs. JINX

Nov. 10, 1980: A photo of a gassed L.C. Greenwood with the headline “Have the Steelers Had It?” The answer was undoubtedly yes. DNQ

Aug. 23, 1982: “Franco Harris: The Man Behind the Mask” Oooooh! Who knows what he was doing on the cover after rushing for 789 yards in 1980 and 987 yards in 1981. His decline only continued. JINX

Jan. 17, 1983: Jack Lambert desperately trying to bring down the Chargers’ Chuck Muncie, with Donnie Shell in the background, during a 33-30, overtime playoff loss. DNQ

Dec. 8, 1986: This is a reach as a Steelers cover. It’s more a Bears cover with Walter Payton running against the Steelers defense. The most prominent Steeler, No. 50-something, is only halfway in the frame with his back to the camera. The Steelers were in the midst of a 6-10 season. DNQ

Dec. 5, 1994: “The Big, Bad Steelers are Back, Crunch!” the headline screamed. The photo featured Brentson Buckner and Tim McKyer sandwiching a Raiders running back. McKyer ended up getting burned by Chargers receiver Tony Martin for the winning touchdown in the AFC championship game. JINX

March 11, 1996: This was the only time Neil O’Donnell could be mentioned in the same conversation with Wayne Gretzky. Both players signed huge contracts. After leading them to Super Bowl XXX, O’Donnell ditched the Steelers and signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Jets. He was with the Jets for only two years, and became a journeyman. JINX

Nov. 24, 1997: A shirtless Jerome Bettis. The following week, he scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime at Arizona. NO JINX

Nov. 14, 2005: Troy Polamalu and his flowing locks, just before the Steelers’ three-game losing streak. JINX

Jan. 16, 2006: Bettis, with his shirt on this time, spiking the ball in the playoff win over the Bengals. His fumble near the goal-line against the Colts the following week nearly cost the Steelers the game. So almost, but NO JINX

Jan. 23, 2006: Ben Roethlisberger beating the Colts. NO JINX

Jan. 30, 2005: Bettis going home to Detroit. NO JINX

Feb. 13, 2006: After the Olympics break the Steelers’ three-week cover streak, it’s Hines Ward and “Thumbs Up.” NO JINX

Sept. 6, 2006: Joey Porter, shirtless except for pads, for the season preview. Defending Super Bowl champs start 2-6, finish 8-8. JINX

Dec. 22, 2008: Steelers beat Ravens, clinch AFC North and first-round playoff bye. WE’LL SEE

That makes the Steelers 15-9 all-time against the jinx. Not bad. Hopefully they’ll get a chance to work on that record in AFC championship games at home.

Scratching the surface

Steelers 13, Ravens 9

By Mike Batista
December 15, 2008

There weren’t a lot of touchdowns to be had. We knew that going in. These were the two best defenses in the NFL.

It seemed like managing just one touchdown would guarantee a win. That’s the kind of game it was.

For 59 black-and-blue minutes, there was nothing but field goals. That made the end zone the ultimate destination. Like Paris or Disney World. The kind of place you hope to get to once in your life.

When a touchdown finally was scored, there was no basking in the end zone. No spiking the ball. No touchdown dance. None of that revelry. Santonio Holmes barely penetrated the prized 10-x-53-yard patch of real estate when he caught a 4-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger at the goal line with 43 seconds left. And it took a booth review to determine if the ball broke the plane.

Holmes’ touchdown was like driving through the desert, stopping at the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, having your picture taken, then turning around and going home.

You might not be able to enjoy Vegas that way. But the Steelers didn’t need to go any farther than the gateway of the end zone to enjoy the benefits of that touchdown.

It gave them a 13-9 win over the Ravens, the AFC North division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. That means the Steelers will skip the wild-card round and await an opponent at Heinz Field in the AFC divisional playoffs the weekend of Jan. 10-11.

Let’s hope the Ravens are gone by then. This is not a team I want to see the Steelers play a third time. They’ve needed overtime and a last-minute touchdown to beat them this season. Considering you need a microscope to see the talent discrepancy between the teams, odds are pretty good the Ravens could clip the Steelers if they meet again.

You didn’t need a microscope, however, to see James Harrison being held like a prom date when Joe Flacco completed a 19-yard pass to Mark Clayton in the fourth quarter. Flacco had gone a full quarter without completing a pass, but that play sparked a drive that brought the Ravens to the Steelers’ 27, putting them in position to add to their 9-6 lead.

Besides a touchdown, I thought another vital ingredient for a Steelers’ win Sunday would be a Harrison strip sack. They got the strip sack. It just wasn’t Harrison. Lawrence Timmons brought down Flacco and knocked the ball loose. The Ravens recovered, but it was at the 41, well out of field-goal range. They had to punt, giving the Steelers the ball at their own 8 with 3:36 left.

For the second straight week, the Steelers’ offense put together just six points before waking up in the final five minutes. As the NFL Films narrator says in the Super Bowl XXIII highlights, “Great players aren’t always great. They’re just great when they have to be.” He’s talking about Joe Montana as he leads the 49ers to a game-winning drive against the Bengals.

Roethlisberger couldn’t have been great Sunday without the help of Hines Ward and Nate Washington. They were the only receivers to catch passes on that game-winning drive before Holmes’ touchdown. Ward probably leads the league in catching passes a foot off the ground. Washington, from Division II Tiffin University, was baptized by the fire of the 2005 AFC championship game, catching his first career pass that day to help the Steelers beat the Broncos and go to Super Bowl XL.

Washington’s 100th career regular-season catch came on Sunday for 24 yards, giving the Steelers a first down at the Ravens’ 14 with 1:12 left to play. That’s when it became clear the Steelers weren’t just playing for overtime. They were playing to win, and that’s just what they did.

Premature praise

By Mike Batista
December 11, 2008

I had the Redskins-Ravens game on Sunday night while I wrote my Cowboys-Steelers game column, and I heard NBC’s John Madden say that the Ravens hired John Harbaugh as head coach because they were looking for the next Mike Tomlin.

Say what?

Madden was referring to Harbaugh’s relative youth (he’s 46) and his ascent from Eagles’ secondary coach last season to his first head coaching job this season. Tomlin, 36, was the Vikings’ defensive coordinator for a year before getting hired by the Steelers last season.

There are some parallels there. But it’s way too early for the words “the next Mike Tomlin” to be uttered anywhere. He’s certainly off to a good start in his first two years, but how about he wins a couple of playoff games first?

Right now, being the next Mike Tomlin means that you have a solid regular season but you’re unproven in the playoffs. Let’s hope that changes in the next couple of months.

The next Bill Cowher. Now that’s something to aspire to. He coached for 15 years and has a Super Bowl ring. In terms of sideline demeanor, Tomlin does share some of Cowher’s tendencies. He’s in-your-face with the players and young enough to look for a guy to chest bump after a big play. A lasting image from the aftermath of Deshea Townsend’s game-winning interception on Sunday was Tomlin taking off his headphones and twirling them around like Roger Daltrey with the microphone at a Who concert.

Did anybody catch Tomlin walking off the field after the win at Washington? He yelled “Woooo!” a few times with an ESPN camera right on him. Then after the win in New England, as the Steelers made their way off the field through the tunnel, Tomlin stayed on the field an extra minute or two and fired up the remaining Steelers fans.

Tomlin manages to look cool in his youthful exuberance. Cowher looked slightly geeky.

Cool counts for something, because it’s part of a quality Tomlin has that Cowher lacked early in his career: Restraint.

Remember when Cowher, who was 34 when he was hired, stuffed a photo in an official’s pocket to dispute a bad call before running into the locker room at halftime? How about when he raised his fist in the direction of a Jaguars’ player returning a blocked field goal for a touchdown on a Monday night?

I think this speaks to Tomlin’s professionalism. While that alone won’t bring Ring No. 6 to Pittsburgh, it can’t hurt. Cowher did win a Super Bowl, it took him 14 years to do it. That leaves Tomlin a big window for improvement

More to say on Deshea

A little clarification on some of the stuff I wrote in my column from the Cowboys game.

I said that Deshea Townsend toiled on special teams before finally getting a chance to start at cornerback in 2003. He also played in nickel packages before starting. And this season, because of injuries, he hasn’t started every game. He was a nickel back on Sunday.

I also left out that early in his career, Townsend was probably most noted for being the guy to take Rod Woodson’s No. 26. The Steelers don’t retire numbers, although there’s a gentleman’s agreement to not use 12 and 75 and probably 36. I’ve never had a problem with Townsend taking Woodson’s No. 26. In fact, before I came across it Sunday on Townsend’s Wikipedia page, I never noticed.

What I do have a problem with, however, is Tony Hills taking Alan Faneca’s No. 66. The fourth-round draft pick can’t even get into a game. He’ll get his chances next season, though, because the Steelers need some new offensive linemen.

Ranking the win

OK, I can say for sure that Sunday’s comeback win over the Cowboys is the most thrilling win in Tomlin’s two years as coach.

It ranks ahead of last season’s 31-28 home win over the Browns because that comeback from 21-6 down started a lot earlier in the game. The Steelers didn’t wake up Sunday until they were down 10 with 7½ minutes left.

It’s funny that Sunday’s win came a week after the Steelers’ first win in New England since 1997, because all the euphoria aside, I think that win at the old Foxboro Stadium is a notch ahead of Sunday’s win.

I can’t quite put the “miracle” tag on Sunday’s win. But that 24-21, overtime win over the Patriots in 1997 was miraculous. Leading 21-13, the Patriots needed just one more first down with 2:10 left. The Steelers had no timeouts. Instead, Drew Bledsoe threw an interception to Kevin Henry, who returned it to the red zone. Then the Kordell Stewart-led Steelers still needed a touchdown, and a fourth-down conversion along the way. When they got the touchdown, they still needed the two-point conversion. They got the two-point conversion. So it was on to overtime. The Steelers won the coin toss but faced third-and-long deep in their own territory before a dump-off pass to Courtney Hawkins got them 41 yards. They kicked the field goal and won.

The other game since then that ranks a little ahead of the Cowboys game is the Steelers’ 36-33 win over the Browns in the 2002 AFC wild-card playoff game. The Steelers were down by 17 in the third quarter and down by 12 with less than four minutes left before scoring two touchdowns to win it.

So that puts Sunday’s win over the Cowboys at No. 3 on the list of comebacks, starting from the win in New England in 1997.

Let’s keep it that way, because I can’t take any more. I’m looking forward to a nice, relaxing 6-3 slugfest on Sunday.

One to remember

Steelers 20, Cowboys 13

By Mike Batista
December 7, 2008

Two Steelers share the distinction of being the longest-tenured members of the team. Both of them have spent their entire 11-year careers in Pittsburgh.

You probably could guess that one of them is Hines Ward. Can you name the other?

Here’s a hint: He played a big role in the Steelers’ come-from-behind win over the Cowboys on Sunday.

The answer: Deshea Townsend.

The veteran cornerback returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown to give the Steelers a 20-13 lead with 1:40 left in the game, completing the Steelers’ comeback from a 13-3 deficit they faced less than six minutes earlier. It was Townsend’s 20th career interception and third career touchdown.

I’m glad it was Townsend who put an exclamation point on one of the most thrilling Steelers wins in recent memory.

It seems like Townsend’s been on the team long enough to have played for Buddy Parker. Now 33, he toiled on special teams for five years before finally getting a chance to start in the second half of the 2003 season. His performance was one of the few bright spots in a dismal 6-10 campaign.

Since then Townsend has started at cornerback without a lot of fanfare. In Super Bowl XL, he sacked Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to kill a Seattle drive in the fourth quarter. But nobody remembers that.

People will remember Sunday’s Pick Six.

With 1:51 left and the game tied 13-13, the Cowboys faced 2nd-and-8 from their own 17. Tony Romo threw a pass intended for tight end Jason Witten. But Witten ran the wrong route. Townsend intercepted it and took it to the house.

A receiver running the wrong route, causing an interception at the worst possible time in a Steelers-Cowboys game? Hmmm. When has that happened before?

That’s right. It happened in Super Bowl XXX. The Steelers trailed 20-17 but were driving in the fourth quarter until Corey Holliday ran the wrong route, which allowed Larry Brown to intercept Neil O’Donnell and become (in)famous.

This is only the third time the Steelers and Cowboys have met since that heartbreaking night in Tempe, Ariz. In the last two, the Steelers have overcome 10-point deficits in the fourth quarter to win.

They came from 20-10 down to beat the Cowboys 24-20 in Dallas in 2004. That comeback, part of a 15-1 season, provided the first hint that Ben Roethlisberger might be something special.

Sunday’s comeback was much more improbable. For 52 minutes and 40 seconds, the Steelers played in a manner that made me want to run into the bathroom and pray to the porcelain god.

Heath Miller and Roethlisberger both fumbled in the first half. The offensive line was its crappy old self, yielding five sacks. The defense at times made Tashard Choice look like Jim Brown.

The Cowboys didn’t exactly look like they were ready to book late-January hotel rooms in Tampa, either. They committed four turnovers in the first half, yet went into the locker room tied 3-3 at halftime.

In the third quarter, the Cowboys took a 13-3 lead while the Steelers’ offense was going nowhere. Finally, Roethlisberger completed a 47-yard pass to Santonio Holmes to the Cowboys’ 33. But it didn’t lead to any points, which made it feel like it just wasn’t the Steelers’ day. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, the Steelers went for the touchdown when they should have kicked the field goal. Gary Russell was thrown for a 2-yard loss, keeping it a two-possession game with 12:26 left.

Holmes tried one more time to give the Steelers a jump-start, returning a punt 35 yards to the Cowboys’ 25 with 8:42 left. It finally worked, even if it was a bumpy ride back into the game. Jeff Reed hit the right goal post on a 41-yard field goal attempt. Fortunately, it made its way through to reduce the Cowboys’ lead to 13-6.

Then after the defense produced a three-and-out, the Steelers got the ball back and ate up big chunks of yardage until they faced a fourth-and-about 2 inches from the Dallas 23. Roethlisberger leaned forward and it looked like he had the first down. But they just had to measure. Roethlisberger made it by about six inches. With three minutes remaining, the Steelers again survived by the hair on their chests.

Roethlisberger then threw a 16-yard pass to Nate Washington to put the ball at the 6. Washington was hurt on the play when the Cowboys’ Ken Hamlin apparently thought he was a chicken and tried to rip his leg off. Washington caught four passes for 58 yards, including three for 51 yards on the game-tying drive. Then he provided a little inspiration when he popped off the ground after being attended to by Steelers staff. On the next play, Roethlisberger threw to Heath (say it with me: “Hands of God”) Miller for a 6-yard touchdown and a tie game with 2:10 left.

At that point, momentum was squarely on the Steelers’ side. Punkman Jones could only return the ensuing kickoff to the 15. Choice gained just two yards to set up 2nd-and-8, and the Steelers called timeout with 1:51 left, figuring they could get the ball back.

They got the ball back, alright. Thanks to Deshea Townsend, a dependable worker who earned his long-awaited day in the spotlight.

Clark is clean

By Mike Batista
December 3, 2008

It turns out Ryan Clark won’t be fined after all.

I thought for sure the Steelers safety would be fined for his hit on Patriots receiver Wes Welker during Sunday’s game.

But according to ProFootballTalk.com, Clark won’t have to open his wallet.

So finally, the NFL decided to stop picking on the Steelers. Any more fines and they’d have to go through each row at Heinz Field with collection baskets, just like at church. I guess the NFL decided that a penalty and a scolding by Ed Hochuli (“an unnecessary hit on a defenseless receiver,” Easy Ed said.) was enough.

It seems whether they win or lose, Steelers safeties can’t avoid infamy in Foxborough. Last year it was Anthony Smith running his mouth and getting burned. What happened Sunday is further demonstration of how much Clark was missed last season.

I still have a hard time believing I actually saw the guys in the white shirts and yellow pants jumping and dancing around the Gillette Stadium turf Sunday night. In order to keep my game column below 1,000 words, I had to leave out some thoughts.

So pardon me as I empty my head:

Brilliant disguise

Just who were those guys wearing the uniforms of the Steelers’ offensive linemen? Did Mike Tomlin find five correctional officers at Cedar Junction in nearby Walpole, Mass., to fill in? Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once. Take away the two games against the Bengals, and that’s the fewest times he’s been sacked in a game this season. The O-Line has been the Steelers’ most glaring weakness. If it really gets better, the Steelers are an instant Super Bowl contender.

Brett who?

What a difference a week makes. Last week, after the Jets handed the Titans their first loss, everyone was talking about an all-New York Super Bowl. The Jets were the Flavor of the Week after beating the Patriots in Foxborough and the Titans in Tennessee. Well, the Steelers can do that, too. They accomplished the first half of that task Sunday, and have a chance to do the latter on Dec. 21. What everyone forgot about the Jets is that they ARE the Jets, which means they’re capable of losing a game they’re not supposed to lose.

What the puck?

If you’re a hard-core Penguins fan, you’ve probably heard of Rene Rancourt. He sings the national anthem before Bruins games. He also sang the national anthem before Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium. Bad move by the Patriots. Don’t get me wrong. Rancourt is one of my favorite national-anthem singers at sports venues. But he’s most closely associated with the Bruins, who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1972. The Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox have combined for 11 championships since then. Rancourt’s presence brought a non-championship karma into the Patriots’ building. And look what happened. Maybe the Penguins should try to make a deal for Rancourt.

Warm and fuzzy

Did anyone notice Randy Moss’ get-up at the post-game press conference? Despite dropping two important passes, including a would-be touchdown, Moss still thought enough of himself to wear a fur coat that probably required the death of at least six animals.

Do the math

I was still up in New England on Monday. It’s comforting to know that the announcers on WEEI sports talk radio have to break out the slide rules and calculus books to try to figure out how the Patriots can get into the playoffs. The Patriots’ last championship is getting tinier and tinier in the rear-view mirror.

Crowd control

Steelers 33, Patriots 10

By Mike Batista
November 30, 2008

I probably had one of the best dry seats in the house. The House of Evil, that is.
My father and I sat in Row 33 of Section 112 at Gillette Stadium. It was the first row protected by an overhang from Sunday's persistent drizzle.

Not only did I stay dry, but I got a little more elbow room in the third quarter when James Harrison sacked Matt Cassel and knocked the ball loose. LaMarr Woodley recovered the fumble. And the people next to me left.

Jeff Reed kicked a 20-yard field goal a couple of minutes later to increase the Steelers' lead to 23-10.

More people left when Troy Polamalu intercepted a pass with 9:31 left in the game. Even more people left when Willie Parker ran 31 yards to the Patriots' 28. The Steelers kicked a field goal to stretch the lead to 26-10, still a two-possession game.

Steelers fans officially brought down the House of Evil when Lawrence Timmons intercepted a Cassel pass and returned it 89 yards to the 1 with 3:27 left. Gary Russell brought it home from there for the final margin of victory, turning the Big Razor into a vast bowl of empty seats dotted with a few thousand Terrible Towel wavers.

Most of those black and gold dots were concentrated around the tunnel at the closed end of the stadium leading to the Steelers' locker room. At that point, I didn't mind getting wet. I moved down to get a closer look as the Steelers ran off the field to a chorus of cheers. Mike Tomlin hung around for an extra minute and shouted right back at his team's supporters, proving again that he's infinitely cooler than Bill Belichick.

It was a fitting greeting for a team that won for the first time in three tries at Gillette Stadium, and for the first time in the bustling metropolis of Foxborough, Mass., since 1997.

I've attended every game the Steelers have played at Gillette Stadium. The first two were very similar. The Patriots won the 2002 season opener 30-14 and they won last season 34-13 for No. 13 in their 16-0 run. In both of those games, the Steelers stayed in the game for a while, but the Patriots slowly but surely took command, in much the same way that a kick in the balls doesn't start to hurt until a few seconds later.

I kept my eyes and ears open for a sign, any sign, that Sunday would be different. Instead, it felt like more of the same when Mike Vrabel intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass at the Steelers 19 just over two minutes into the game. Less than a minute after that, Sammy Morris ran it in from 2 yards out to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead.

Vrabel is an intriguing figure in the Steelers-Patriots rivalry. As a rookie in 1997, he forced a Drew Bledsoe fumble late in the game to help the Steelers hang on for a 7-6 playoff win over the Patriots. The Steelers let Vrabel go after the 2000 season, and he immediately became a vital cog in all three Patriots' championships. It was one of the worst personnel moves, if not the worst, of the Bill Cowher Era.

Vrabel's interception wasn't the first time the Steelers were haunted by their past while trying to beat a nemesis on the road this season. In Jacksonville, Rashean Mathis returned an interception for a touchdown early in the game, just like he did in the playoffs last season. But the Steelers survived the flashback and went on to end their four-game losing streak against the Jaguars.

Fortunately, Vrabel's pick was the extent to which Tomlin would have to pay for Cowher's mistake. Instead, he reaped the benefits of his own player evaluation in the second quarter when Mewelde Moore started a drive with a something-out-of-nothing 10-yard gain. It sparked a nine-play, 63-yard sequence that ended with Roethlisberger's 19-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes, tying the score at 10-10 with two minutes left in the first half. When the PA announcer said "Touchdown, Steelers," it sounded like a doctor telling a patient he has three months to live.

Just when it looked like the game would be tied at halftime, the Steelers forgot how to tackle. Aided by a 41-yard run by Kevin Faulk, the Patriots advanced to the Steelers' 9-yard-line. But they wouldn't get any closer. Randy Moss dropped a would-be touchdown pass. It was his second drop of the game. The Patriots sold their soul by getting Moss. Maybe now the bill is due.

The game remained tied when Stephen Gostowski missed a 27-yard field goal. Hmmm. Maybe things would be different this time.

After a Casey Hampton sack (one of five times Cassel was brought down) yanked the Patriots out of field-goal range to start the second half, the Steelers took over at their own 14. Again, Moore sparked a scoring drive, this time with a 20-yard run. Moore and Willie Parker combined for 154 yards on 28 carries. The drive was punctuated by a 25-yard Reed field goal, giving the Steelers a 13-10 lead.

Then, finally, I found what I was looking for on the ensuing kickoff. Matthew Slater turned the ball into a hot potato, and the Steelers' Keyaron Fox recovered the ball at the Patriots' 8. Roethlisberger, who was only sacked once, threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward two plays later, giving the Steelers a 20-10 lead with just over five minutes left in the third quarter.

This was like nothing I'd ever seen before in a Steelers game at Gillette Stadium. The Steelers were actually in control of the game.

Before the third quarter was over, Harrison strip-sacked Cassel. It was the first of two Harrison sacks. In both cases he knocked the ball loose. And in both cases, he sent Patriots fans home.

Top 10 Reasons the Steelers
are Cooler than the Patriots

By Mike Batista

Well, well, well, look who’s next on the Steelers schedule.

If it isn’t Hoodie and the Patriots.

This year, Patriots Week has three extra days. Having taken care of the Bengals on Thursday, the Steelers have 10 days to prepare for the showdown. And I get 10 days of Patriot Hatin’. So I bring you The Top 10 Reasons the Steelers are Cooler than the Patriots, one reason for each day.

Editor's note: Because I'm traveling to New England to attend the game, I'm entering the world of wireless, so I'm adding No. 2 and No. 1 the day before the game. They're all there now. If you've followed this every day, you'll notice I reversed the order. So it starts with No.10 and goes all the way down to No. 1.

No. 10: The Patriots can’t win nice

The Patriots can’t beat the Steelers without an asshole coaching them, thus promoting the idea that nice guys finish last. What a terrible message for our children!

Bill Belichick? Bill Parcells? Assholes both. Belichick’s a surly cheater and Parcells is probably kissing the mirror as we speak. And they have a combined 3-0 record against the Steelers in playoff games.

Pete Carroll? Nice guy. Easygoing California surfer dude. Was seen sitting in the bleachers watching his daughter’s high school volleyball games while he coached the Patriots.

Carroll lost his only playoff game against the Steelers. Played in Pittsburgh, that game in 1997 is forever known as “The 7-6 Game.” The Carroll-led Patriots would have had that game at home were it not for a 24-21, overtime loss to the Steelers in the regular season. The Patriots basically had the game won in regulation until Drew Bledsoe let the Steelers back in the game with a foolish interception. It was one of the more infamous losses in Patriots history, and the last time the Steelers won in New England.

Now let’s look at the upstanding men who have patrolled the Steelers sideline since 1969.

Chuck Noll touted former Steelers player and assistant coach Tony Dungy as a qualified head coaching candidate, which ultimately led to Dungy becoming the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

Bill Cowher was also known to sit in the stands watching his daughters play, only it was basketball rather than volleyball.

Mike Tomlin might be boring with the press, but at least he treats them better than Parcells and Belichick.

The coaching trifecta of Noll-Cowher-Tomlin is 13-10 all-time against the Patriots. This proves the Steelers can win with nice guys as coaches and the Patriots can’t.

No. 9: Behavior of former quarterbacks in Newport

Newport, Rhode Island. The City-by-the-Sea. During the summer, tourists flock to Newport from all over the world.

There’s a lot of history in Newport, including a chain of events that helped prove that the Steelers are cooler than the Patriots.

In 2002, I worked at a newspaper in Rhode Island, and covered a charity softball game involving a lot of former Patriots at Cardines Field in Newport.

One of those former Patriots was Scott Zolak, a backup quarterback in the ’90s. I wanted to interview him after the game, but he pretty much blew me off. By then Zolak, who admittedly was born in Monongahela, Pa., was an announcer at a Boston TV station. So I guess he thought he was too big-time for me.

Hello, Zolak! You backed up Drew Bledsoe! You couldn’t take the job of a guy who turned out to be a journeyman!

Now that I got that off my chest, let’s look at how former Steelers quarterback Mark Malone carried himself when he came to Newport.

Malone, who unlike Zolak was actually able to hold down a starting job in the NFL, was working the XGames for ESPN when they took place in Newport in the mid-’90s. From what I heard, he was a nice, down-to-earth guy. And this was the winning quarterback when the San Francisco 49ers suffered their only loss during their Super Bowl-winning season in 1984.

And today (November 22), Malone turns 50. I’m sure this salute will be his favorite present.

No. 8: Sensitivity to claustrophobics

The Patriots were feeling pretty good about themselves on September 9, 2002. They had just won their first Super Bowl, and they were opening their brand-new stadium on Monday Night Football.

The atmosphere was electric at Gillette Stadium. The Madden Cruiser was parked outside. They raised their Super Bowl XXXVI championship banner. The whole sports world was watching.

Here’s what the Patriots didn’t want anyone to know: The elevators in their shiny new stadium were screwed up. I ought to know. I was there and I got stuck in one.

I know my faithful readers see me as a big, robust, fearless Steelers pundit. But I’m not afraid to admit that I can’t stand elevators and will go to great lengths to avoid them. I’m kind of claustrophobic.

Long before the game started, I was sort of herded into an elevator. It was stuck probably for about five minutes. As it turned out, I’d have been better off trapped in that tiny box for the next five hours. I wouldn’t have had to witness the Steelers’ 30-14 loss.

Heinz Field and Pittsburgh turned out to be much more claustrophobic-friendly. I drove out there to see the Steelers’ last regular-season game of 2002, a 34-31 win over the Ravens. During my day and a half in the ’Burgh, I didn’t have to step into an elevator once.

No. 7: Old stomping grounds

Here’s a test to see if you’re old enough to be on this site. Did you know that the Steelers haven’t always played at Heinz Field and the Patriots haven’t always played at Gillette Stadium? If not, then you’re too young to read my stuff. I swear a lot. You should be watching cartoons – like Robot Chicken.

Anyway, from 1970-2000, the Steelers played at Three Rivers Stadium, which was way cooler than Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium, where the Patriots played from 1971-2001.

Let’s start with the names. You could argue Three Rivers is the coolest name ever for a sports stadium. The Patriots could never even figure out what to call their stadium. It had three different names.

Three Rivers Stadium was state-of-the-art for its time, built for baseball and football. It was a colorful stadium with red, yellow and blue seats. Foxboro Stadium just had metal benches, like a glorified high-school football field. There weren’t even enough bathrooms. When I went to games as a kid, the men’s room lines were so long that guys would piss in the sink!

Sure, Foxboro Stadium went out with a bang. The final game played there was the famous “Tuck Rule” playoff game against the Raiders when Adam Vinatieri kicked two field goals in a snowstorm.

But the historical significance of the Steelers’ last game at Three Rivers is often overlooked. In 2000, they beat the Redskins 24-3 to officially eliminate them from playoff contention. That was the year spoiled brat Daniel Snyder, the Redskins owner, went on a free agent spending spree, signing the likes of Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith. But it didn’t quite work out, and the Steelers drove the final nail into the coffin, proving that you can’t buy a championship in the NFL.

No. 6: The Patriots don’t even play in Boston

You can’t watch a Steelers home game on TV without seeing a cable car with a Steelers logo moving up and down Mount Washington. That obligatory shot of the Duquesne Incline is a nice slice of Pittsburgh, and it’s right across the river from where the Steelers play.

When a Patriots home game is on TV, it’s laughable when they come back from commercials and show shots of Boston landmarks like Quincy Market or the Paul Revere statue or the John Hancock Tower.

Gillette Stadium is in Foxborough, Mass., which is closer to Providence than it is to Boston. In fact, when the Patriots host AFC championship games, the media hotels are in Providence.

They can’t even decide how to spell Foxborough. Some people spell it Foxborough and some people spell it Foxboro. However you spell it, the town’s population is a puny 16,000, which means Gillette Stadium is in the middle of nowhere.

Meanwhile, with Heinz Field situated at the confluence of three rivers, a case can be made that it’s in the middle of everywhere.

No. 5: The receivers

Wide receivers are showmen as much as they are athletes. They like to be seen and heard with all these touchdown dances and bling-bling at press conferences.

They’re performing artists, and they can also be prima donnas. How often do you hear receivers complaining about a lack of touches or, worse, throwing their teammates under the bus?

Randy Moss has been a poster-boy for all this. He’s been on his best behavior the last couple of years with the Patriots, even though he still manages to dress like a complete jackass at the podium. But let’s not forget his walking off the field with two seconds still on the clock when he played for the Vikings, or the Randy Ratio. These receivers can give their teams headaches.

The only headaches Hines Ward hands out is to opposing players. He’s known for his blocking as much as his receiving, and he’s written a few checks to the commissioner’s office because of it. Ward is a bully in a world of divas. And he can catch passes, too. He’s the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver and a four-time Pro Bowler.

If that’s not enough to convince you that Ward is cooler than Moss, how about the fact that Ward has a Super Bowl ring, and Moss doesn’t. How’s that for bling?

No. 4: Thankful for the Steelers

Ah, Thanksgiving memories. The Steelers have provided them. The Patriots haven’t.

The Steelers have been involved in two of the most infamous Thanksgiving Day games, both in Detroit. Phil Luckett, one of Steelers Nation’s Ten Most Wanted, botched the overtime coin flip in 1998, giving the Lions the ball and a 19-16 win over the Steelers.

In 1983, the Lions stuffed the Steelers 45-3. I started watching the Steelers in 1979, and I wondered why they never played the Lions. They hadn’t played them since 1973. Well, be careful what you wish for.

Sure, the Steelers have never actually won on Thanksgiving, but families still gather around the television on this holiday and fondly recall those special moments together watching the Steelers get embarrassed by the Lions in ’83 or hosed by Phil Luckett in ’98.

In both of those cases, the Steelers had good seasons going. In 1983, they started out 9-2. But that Thanksgiving game was the second in a three-game losing streak. They lost four out of their last five and got spanked 38-10 by the Raiders in the divisional playoffs.

In 1998, the Steelers started 7-4, but that Thanksgiving loss started a five-game losing streak that knocked them out of the playoffs.

But, hey, what’s making the playoffs when you can help bring families closer? How many engagements have been announced on Thanksgiving with the Steelers providing an amusing backdrop?

Who can remember the last time the Patriots played on Thanksgiving? It was 2002 in Detroit. Yeah, they won, but I could barely keep my eyes open.

By the way, the Steelers are scheduled to go to Detroit in 2009. Will it be another Thanksgiving Day game? Guys, I’d start looking at rings just in case.

No. 3: Coaching carousel (er, carouser)

This is where Steelahs.com goes all TMZ. Let’s take a look at the coaches’ personal lives. This is for mature audiences only. If you’re under 13, go play Grand Theft Auto or something.

There are a number of reasons Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is cooler than Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Belichick, who’s divorced, was accused of maintaining a relationship with former Giants receptionist Sharon Shenocca, prompting her divorce. By Super Bowl XLII, Belichick started dating 43-year-old Linda Holliday, but he flew in Shenocca for the game, proving his genius does not carry over beyond the white lines.

Belichick and Holliday were seen at some Celtics playoff games in the spring. Maybe they should go to a Red Sox game together. Is that BoSox or Botox?

Tomlin, meanwhile, is married to his college sweetheart, Kiya Winston, who still has it going on enough to model a dress at last month’s Steelers Fashion Show, which benefitted the Thomas E. Starzl Transplant Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Cancer Caring Center.

OK, so Belichick likes Bon Jovi. That gets him cool points, right? No! His taste in music is 20 years behind! In a couple of years, he’ll probably start liking Nirvana. At least he’s got a head start on that. He’s dressed for the grunge scene.

Maybe Belichick can start his own band: “Hoodie and the Patriots.” After all, he’s such a baby cuz the Dolphins make him cry.

No. 2: Bang for their buck

How cool is this? Art Rooney bought the Steelers in 1933 with money he won at the track.

That’s right. The Chief won $2,500 at Saratoga Race Course in New York and used it for the NFL franchise entrance fee.

In 1959, Billy Sullivan couldn’t even get into the NFL, so he settled for an AFL franchise in Boston (they actually played in Boston back then) for $25,000. The Patriots finally got into the NFL with the merger in 1970. Then they had to go through two more owners before they got to their current owner. Victor Kiam bought them in 1988. James Orthwein bought them in 1992. Orthwein wanted to move them to St. Louis. But Robert Kraft saved the day and bought them in 1994 for $175 million.

Then in 1999, the Patriots had an agreement to move to Hartford, Conn. Only then did they get a real stadium in Massachusetts.

That’s a lot of ownership changes and threats to move for a franchise that’s been around a quarter-century less than the Steelers. And through it all, the Steelers have stayed in the Rooney family, starting with that winning ticket.

No. 1: The Conspiracy of ’05

Mention the year 2005 to Steelers fans and it brings back such pleasant memories. Who possibly could have foreseen the Steelers’ magical run to their fifth Super Bowl championship?

Bill Belichick. That’s who.

And that’s why I say the Patriots purposely settled for a lower seed in the playoffs so they could duck the Steelers.

The Steelers had to win their last four regular-season games, including the finale at home against the Lions, just to get the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. The Patriots, meanwhile, had a chance to earn the No. 3 seed with a win at home over the Dolphins and a Bengals loss at Kansas City. The No. 3 seed would have given the Patriots a home game against the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs.

All of the aforementioned games took place at 1 p.m.

It was pretty clear early on that the Chiefs were going to hammer the Bengals. They ended up winning 37-3. So with the No. 3 seed pretty much there for the taking, the Patriots rested many of their starters, and Tom Brady played very little. A rookie named Matt Cassel completed 11 of 20 passes for the Patriots, who lost to the Dolphins 28-26 and ended up with the No. 4 seed.

For all his foibles, Belichick is a circus-freak genius when it comes to football (After all, he did say Dermontti Dawson should be in the Hall of Fame). Could he have sensed danger in a Steelers team that won four straight must-wins to make the playoffs? Or could it be that he didn’t get enough videotape of the Steelers’ sideline in the Patriots’ 23-20 win over the Steelers in September of that season?

The Steelers began their storied streak of road playoff wins by beating the Bengals in a wild-card game. Meanwhile, the Patriots routed the Jaguars, probably the worst 12-4 team of all-time. The Broncos eliminated the Patriots the following week while the Steelers shocked the Colts.

The rest is history.

Well, Bill, you can't duck the Steelers today!

Heads up

Steelers 27, Bengals 10

By Mike Batista
November 21, 2008

What’s the best thing about the Steelers’ win over the Bengals Thursday night?

The vicious hit Santonio Holmes took from the Bengals’ Chris Crocker, that’s what.

Why is that a good thing for the Steelers, you ask?

Because at least now Holmes’ head is officially out of his ass.

In all fairness, Holmes’ head appeared to be in the game. His weeks of running routes incorrectly seemed to be a thing of the past. He caught five passes for 84 yards, holding onto the ball for a 6-yard reception after getting thumped by Crocker in the third quarter.

But if there was any shred of doubt that the pot residue was completely gone from Holmes’ brain, Crocker removed it. Holmes was whacked so hard he lost his balance trying to get up, and he didn’t return to the game.

Assuming birds and stars aren’t still circling Holmes’ head, the Steelers are going to need him to keep it out of his rectal cavity November 30 in New England. They’re going to need that and a few other things down the stretch if they want to have a shot at getting to the Super Bowl. They have 10 days off, then the schedule gets tough, starting with their appointment at the House of Evil.

The Steelers are going to need Willie Parker. Without him, they’re a one-and-done team in the playoffs. Parker gained 37 yards on 14 carries Thursday night, leaving the game after his longest gain, a 15-yard pickup just two plays before Holmes got his bell rung. Parker’s injury didn’t sound serious. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he “tweaked” his knee. Parker’s like a sports car that’s always in the shop. The sports car might not look as cool with a few dings and scratches, but the Steelers need it on the road.

The Steelers are going to need Bryant McFadden and Deshea Townsend to get healthy. The Bengals started to expose Fernando Bryant and Willie Gay Thursday night, taking a 7-0 lead on an 11-play, 62-yard drive in the first quarter. That changed when the Steelers applied pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick. Still, Gay’s a second-year man who’s still wet behind the ears (although he almost had an interception late in the first half) and Bryant’s a journeyman. They can’t do much more than keep the seats warm for McFadden and Townsend.

The Steelers are going to need to protect Ben Roethlisberger better. What’s that you say? He wasn’t sacked Thursday night? No, he wasn’t. But don’t get too excited about that. The Bengals are the only team that hasn’t been able to sack Roethlisberger this season. They’re 31st in the league with 11 sacks.

Another Steelers need, as Tom Cruise would put it, is the Need for Sweed. If they’re going to get any help from the 2008 draft class, it’s all on Sweed’s shoulders, which means they can do without his Ricardo Colclough impersonation on punts. The Steelers led 10-7 late in the first half and had a chance to add more points when the Bengals punted. But Sweed, the rookie receiver, wandered a little too close to the fire, and the ball nicked his hand. The Bengals recovered the ball and had it at the Steelers’ 39. Fortunately, they didn’t score.

It was a love-hate kind of deal with Sweed Thursday night. He caught two passes for 25 yards. The first reception was for 8 yards on 3rd-and-9 from the Bengals’ 12, giving the Steelers a chance to show off their newfound short-yardage ace, Gary Russell, on 4th-and-1. Two plays later, Roethlisberger threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller to tie the game at 7-7.

Sweed’s other reception helped drive a nail into the Bengals’ coffin. He caught a 17-yard pass on 3rd-and-10 with just over five minutes left in the game, helping the Steelers kill more time leading 20-10.

Now the Steelers have a little extra time on their hands before facing the Patriots. Considering the fact that this game was circled on a lot of calendars when the NFL schedule came out in April, 10 days doesn’t seem like that much of a wait.

A bad taste

By Mike Batista
November 18, 2008

I’m not going to pretend I have an answer here. I can’t say for sure whether or not Sunday’s Chargers-Steelers game was fixed in any way.

One thing I will not do, however, is sit here and say there’s no way I think the game could have been fixed.

A lot of mainstream media outlets have pointed out everything suspicious about the game, particularly its bizarre ending. I've heard the word "fishy" being used. Then they back off and say they don’t think for a minute that there was any corruption.

I’m not saying there was any fix. I’m just saying there could have been, and we’re naïve to dismiss the possibility.

The NFL goes to great lengths to prevent undue influence on games. But if an NBA official can be tainted, why not an NFL official?

People from all walks of life, legitimate or not, might be more desperate to make money in today’s economy.

Here’s the key question: How far in advance do officials know what game they’re working? I’ve asked that question to outlets more established than mine. So far I haven’t received an answer. If anyone does know the answer, I would welcome the input.

I would hope that the crew finds out where it’s going on Sunday as late as possible. If they knew their entire schedule at the beginning of the season, that would give crooked gamblers more time to get in touch with them and make them an offer. It would be much better if they didn’t know until, say, Friday afternoon where they’ll be on Sunday.

Here’s something interesting. One of the replay changes being talked about is to prevent the referee from conferring with other officials after seeing the replay. That would work if another member of the crew was on the take, but not if the referee was.

Everyone knows the sequence of events by now. A Troy Polamalu touchdown at the end of the game was incorrectly taken away, making the final score 11-10, and preventing the Steelers from covering the 4½-point spread. Thirteen penalties were called on the Steelers, including one that negated a touchdown with 15 seconds left. Two penalties were called on the Chargers, one if you don’t count the illegal forward pass on their aborted Cal-Stanford reenactment.

That’s two touchdowns that were taken away from the Steelers in the final 15 seconds. The first one, Willie Parker’s 4-yard run that was called back by a holding penalty, would likely have given the Steelers a 15-10 lead, assuming the point after. That would have covered the spread. It was the third holding penalty called on the Steelers on their game-winning drive, including the kickoff return. It’s often said that there’s holding on every play. That’s very convenient for an official who’s trying to influence the point differential. Just call it when you need to.

Hey, Polamalu’s interception on the opening drive could easily have been overturned, but it wasn’t. That alone means the game wasn’t fixed, right?

Let’s hope so.

We’ve known for decades, centuries even, that we can’t have blind faith in our political, religious or business leaders. So how can we have blind faith in the integrity of a game?

What happened Sunday at Heinz Field makes you think. We should always harbor a healthy bit of skepticism.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy watching the Steelers. This week, we get to do it twice. The Steelers play the Bengals at 8:15 tonight. If you don’t have the NFL Network, then get to a bar, have a drink and cheer like a madman (or madwoman).

Looks don’t matter

Steelers 11, Chargers 10

By Mike Batista
November 17, 2008

This win was so ugly, I wouldn’t take it home at last call no matter how drunk I was.

The Steelers won despite:

    * Committing 13 penalties for 115 yards
    * Ben Roethlisberger being sacked four more times
    * Mewelde Moore getting his ass handed to him at the goal line for the second straight week
    * Allowing the Chargers to convert five of their 10 third downs.

And their game-winning drive wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty, either. First, Gary Russell muffed the kickoff, and a holding penalty on the return forced the Steelers to start at their own 13. Then with 15 seconds left on the clock, a 4-yard Willie Parker touchdown run was negated by a holding penalty on jittery Sean McHugh. Not only did it erase the touchdown, but it turned a chip shot field goal into one with at least some degree of difficulty with the Steelers trailing 10-8.

Jeff Reed kicked the 32-yard field goal for the winning points. But that winning drive was a little bit like a bride picking her nose on the way down the aisle.

Then of course the gamblers were still in suspense when it looked like Troy Polamalu returned a fumbled lateral for a touchdown on the game’s final play. It was ruled incorrectly that the Chargers made an illegal forward pass, which meant the ball was dead and the touchdown didn’t count, making the final score 11-10.

It’s kind of neat the Steelers won the first 11-10 game in NFL history, but even that could come back to haunt them. Best combined conference ranking in points scored and points allowed is the No. 7 tiebreaker. We could be sitting around on Dec. 28 wishing they had those six points.

No, it wasn’t pretty. But at least Sunday’s win taught us some things – like math.

The Steelers (7-3) didn’t score a touchdown. So they had to use the complex formula of safety + field goal x 3 to get the points needed to win. It was first time the Steelers won a game in which their opponent scored a touchdown and they didn’t since they beat the Browns 15-12 in overtime on Nov. 11, 2001. Of course, best net touchdowns in all games is the No. 11 tiebreaker. Cross your fingers.

We, and hopefully the Steelers, also learned the value of holding onto the ball for an interception instead of just knocking it down. The Colts provided the first lesson last week, and the Steelers put it into practice Sunday with two interceptions.

Polamalu had the first pick on the game’s opening drive. But James Harrison had the interception that turned the game – and possibly the Steelers’ season – around. The Chargers (4-6) were looking to add to their 7-2 lead late in the first half and reached the Steelers’ 17. Harrison intercepted a Philip Rivers pass and returned it to the Steelers’ 43 with 1:23 left in the half. Jeff Reed eventually kicked a 21-yard field goal to narrow the Steelers’ deficit to 7-5 at halftime, but not before Santonio Holmes almost caused chairs to be kicked all over Western Pennsylvania when he caught a pass at the 3 and took his sweet time getting out of bounds before time expired. There’s still some pot residue in that cranium.

Harrison’s interception gave the Steelers 10 for the season, one shy of last season’s total. He had a sack and forced fumble to go with it, and the Steelers wouldn’t have won without them. Harrison registered both on the same play, stripping the ball from Rivers in the end zone. Offensive lineman Marcus McNeill fell on the ball, but was tackled by Harrison to put the Steelers on the board with the safety.

The Steelers had to overcome a lot of deficiencies to get this win, but one thing they didn’t have to overcome for a change was a Roethlisberger interception. Roethlisberger completed 31 of 41 passes for 308 yards. He completed all six of his passes on the game-winning drive. The most clutch completion came on 3rd-and-6 from the Chargers’ 41. Flushed out of the pocket, Roethlisberger rolled to his left and fired for seven yards to Hines Ward, who caught 11 passes for 124 yards. That put the Steelers on the fringe of field-goal range. Then Roethlisberger threw a 13-yard bullet to Holmes at the 21.

No more throwing for Roethlisberger after that. Down two points, he smartly handed off to Willie Parker the rest of the way. Parker, by the way, gained 115 yards on 25 carries in his return. Mewelde Moore filled in admirably while Parker was out, but there’s no playoffs without Parker.

Parker set things up for Reed, who gave the Steelers their first one-point win since they beat the Ravens on Oct. 31, 2005.

There’s that math again.

Corner market

By Mike Batista
November 16, 2008

With two of their top three cornerbacks injured, the Steelers signed Roy Lewis yesterday from their practice squad.

Roy Lewis. Is that like a cheaper version of Ray Lewis? Like Butterthumbs or Gravy Way or Nickers or Two Musketeers on “Everybody Hates Chris?”

The Steelers also picked up Patriots reject Fernando Bryant this week. Unfortunately, since he was only with the Patriots for one training camp before he was cut, Bryant won’t be able to supply the kind of intelligence on the Patriots that Ty Law fed the Jets this week.

Too bad the Steelers weren’t able to get cornerback Justin Miller, who was placed on waivers by the Jets and went to the Raiders.

In 2006, Miller was one of the league’s top kick returners. The Steelers could use someone with a chance of breaking one for a touchdown. Gary Russell getting the ball to the 30 is all well and good, but at some point you’re going to need points on special teams.

Class of 2007

Let’s take a look at who will be starting today at cornerback for the Steelers. Ike Taylor’s been doing a hell of a job this year. He played his ass off last week against Indianapolis, but unfortunately his effort worked against him when two passes he tipped ended up in the hands of a Colts receiver.

William Gay, drafted in the fifth round in 2007, will get his first NFL start today. He didn’t look too bad last week. If the Steelers get any kind of production out of him, that would make a solid draft class even better. LaMarr Woodley (who should be back today) has emerged as one of their leading pass rushers with 9.5 sacks. Lawrence Timmons has 35 tackles and four sacks. Matt Spaeth has been an ample fill-in for Heath Miller, at least in terms of pass catching. Punter Daniel Sepulveda’s on injured reserve this season but has a very good chance of getting his job back next season.

Dallas Baker, their seventh-round pick in ’07, was cut to make room for Lewis. But he could re-sign if he clears waivers. By the way, you think Baker would have been cut if he had snatched the ball out of Melvin Bullitt’s hands on the Hail Mary last week?

The only lost causes from the 2007 draft appear to be fourth-round pick Ryan McBean and fifth-round pick Cameron Stephenson.

It’s already a good draft class, and it could get even better. Not a bad start to the Mike Tomlin Era. Now let’s get that 17th career win today.

Bless us Father

Colts 24, Steelers 20

By Mike Batista
November 9, 2008

I know Dan Rooney is a devout Catholic, but that doesn’t mean the Steelers have to do Penance every goddamn year.

On Sunday night, Ben Roethlisberger threw a Hail Mary as time ran out. The ball went right through the hands of Nate Washington and into the hands of the Colts’ Melvin Bullitt, allowing the Colts to hang on for the 24-20 win.

The Steelers repented for the 1995 AFC championship game, when in an eerily similar situation Colts receiver Aaron Bailey couldn’t hold onto the ball in the end zone on the last play, giving the Steelers a 20-16 win. The Steelers got a little gift in that game when Kordell Stewart, then in his Slash days, caught a touchdown pass illegally after stepping out of bounds in the end zone. So maybe the Steelers couldn’t celebrate their Super Bowl berth with a clear conscience.

This is just like last year, when the Steelers were upset in overtime by the Jets. It was what the priest ordered for their lucky playoff win over the Jets in 2004.

It would be so much easier if the Steelers could just say a bunch of Hail Marys for their Penance instead of having to throw one.

The Steelers’ season slowly unraveled after the Jets game last year. Could the same thing happen this season?

Their loss to the Colts isn’t nearly as surprising as their loss to the Jets last season. Yes, the Colts have struggled this year, but with Peyton Manning, they’re capable of winning every game.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t signs of trouble, such as Roethlisberger’s penchant for throwing interceptions. Two of this three picks Sunday gave the Colts (5-4) life at a time when the Steelers (6-3) could have put them away. The first came with the Steelers less than two minutes from going into the locker room with a 17-7 halftime lead. Keiwan Ratliff snatched a Roethlisberger pass at the Steelers’ 32. Manning eventually threw to Dallas Clark for a 2-yard touchdown, narrowing the gap to 17-14.

After the teams traded field goals, the Steelers clung to a 20-17 lead when they took the ball with 6:13 left in the game. They could have taken time off the clock and maybe even added to their lead, but with just under five minutes left, Roethlisberger threw a pick to Tim Jennings at the Steelers’ 38. Four plays later, Manning threw a 17-yard TD pass to Dominic Rhodes for the winning score.

Roethlisberger has thrown eight interceptions in the last three weeks. He has 11 for the season with just 10 touchdown passes. I’m not going to jump on the Byron Leftwich bandwagon just yet, but it might be time to keep an eye on the situation.

Some of the blame should go to Santonio Holmes. Roethlisberger’s first two interceptions yesterday were intended for Holmes, who was also the target when the Redskins intercepted Roethlisberger last Monday. That came after sitting out the Giants game. It seems like Holmes is hurting the Steelers whether he plays or not.

What also didn’t help Roethlisberger and the Steelers was their lack of a running game. This is the first time the Steelers missed Willie Parker. Mewelde Moore gained just 57 yards on 24 carries. In the fourth quarter, on second-and-goal from 1, he was stuffed on two straight plays to force the field goal, which gave the Steelers the 20-17 lead. It turned out the Steelers would need the touchdown.

By the way, could Sean McHugh possibly have telegraphed the run any more? On both second and third down from the 1, the tight end went in motion, stopped in the middle of the line and jumped up and down before the snap like he had six cups of coffee, thus tipping off his lead-blocking duties. He looked like the Lincoln player who knew he was going to get his ass kicked by Forest Whitaker in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

The screens and short passes the Steelers threw during the game were a good prescription for their sack problem. But needing a touchdown on their last drive, they couldn’t wean themselves off the dinks and dunks.

Trailing 24-20, they got the ball at their own 27 with two timeouts and 3:04 left. None of their plays went for more than 10 yards until a 16-yard pass to Moore with 28 seconds left brought the ball to the Colts’ 27. By then it was too late. Out of timeouts, the Steelers had time for just one more play, the Hail Mary to Washington, whose streak of four straight games with a reception of at least 48 yards was broken.

Perhaps the Steelers were hesitant to go long on that last drive because they didn’t trust the offensive line to protect Roethlisberger long enough for the receivers to get downfield. Roethlisberger was sacked only twice yesterday, but one of them came on that final drive.

After their win in Washington, the Steelers were hailed as the second-best team in the AFC. Now they’re tied with the Ravens for first in the AFC North. In the conference, they have the same record as the Jets and Patriots, who are tied for first in the East, and are just one game ahead of the Colts, Broncos, Bills and Dolphins. And the Patriots, Cowboys, Baltimore Bounty Hunters and Titans all lurk on the schedule.

Let us pray.

Bowl season

By Mike Batista
November 9, 2008

What’s the best thing about 4:15 Steelers games? We can watch bowling at 1!

I’m so glad I don’t have to choose between watching the Steelers and the PBA Lake County Indiana Golden Anniversary Classic on ESPN. Coming on the heels of ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, bowling is a ratings bonanza on Sunday afternoons! I just hope my faithful readers can tear themselves away from it for a few minutes to read my pregame post.

First, if the Steelers weren’t already a Super Bowl contender, they became one yesterday when they released Najeh Davenport. That’s how much the team’s overall talent level goes up without Davenport. In his place, they signed linebacker Donovan Woods, a valuable special teamer.

How bad was Davenport? The Steelers released him even though they need all the help they can get at running back with Willie Parker’s injury. According to an NFL.com report, Parker has a torn labrum in his shoulder and will need offseason surgery.

It seems to be one injury after another for Parker. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to last. Even though Rashard Mendenhall is out for the season, picking him in the first round is looking like a smart move for the Steelers. They need to stock up at running back.

I’m a little nervous now. The Steelers said they spent more time preparing for Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark in practice this week than they did preparing for Marvin Harrison. I hope that doesn’t come back to bite them. That could motivate Harrison to burn them.

Also, you know somewhere deep down Peyton Manning wants to get revenge for the 2005 playoff game. The Colts aren’t what they used to be. But they’re still dangerous.

High-value win

Steelers 23, Redskins 6

By Mike Batista
November 4, 2008

Monday night’s win over the Redskins was a win the Steelers needed.

Not because the Ravens are breathing down their neck in the AFC North, we all know the Steelers are better than the Ravens, but because they needed an impressive win over an elite team.

Their win at Jacksonville looked good. But it was cheapened by Jacksonville’s losses to Cleveland and Cincinnati over the last two weeks.

Now we have a new victory to designate as the Most Impressive Win of the Mike Tomlin Era. As convincing as the final score was, it doesn’t reveal all that the Steelers accomplished Monday.

    * The Steelers showed they can win without Ben Roethlisberger just like they can win without Willie Parker. Byron Leftwich played the entire second half in place of Roethlisberger, who injured his right shoulder (although X-Rays were negative), and completed 7 of 10 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
    * Five weeks after suffering a spinal cord injury and being carried off the field on a stretcher against Baltimore, Andre Frazier turned the game around by blocking Ryan Plackemeier’s punt late in the second quarter, giving the Steelers the ball at the Redskins’ 13-yard-line and setting up their go-ahead touchdown.
    * The defense held Clinton Portis to 51 yards on 13 carries after he went five straight games with at least 120 yards. The only feather Portis could take out of the Steelers’ hat was their status as the only team to not give up a run of 20 yards this season. He gained 22 yards on a run in the first half. Take that away and Portis had 29 yards on 12 carries.
    * Deshea Townsend, who has been around so long I think he played for Jock Sutherland, broke Jason Campbell’s streak of 271 passes without an interception when he plucked a deflected pass out of the air late in the third quarter. Tyrone Carter, spelling injured safety Ryan Clark, intercepted Campbell in garbage time. Hey, the Steelers even let Anthony Smith out of his room, and he had a tackle.
    * The NFL’s top defense didn’t allow a point over the last 56 minutes of the game. The Redskins started both of their field-goal drives inside the Steelers’ 40.
    * The Steelers shut everyone up about not being able to beat an NFC East team.

The Steelers (6-2) didn’t need 60 minutes of good football to get this win. Between Tomlin’s decision to open the game with an onsides kick and Santonio Holmes’ two dropped passes and two wayward passing routes, you’d have thought Holmes still had some of the wackie tobackie and was sharing it with his coach.

Roethlisberger completed just 5 of 17 passes, with one interception, for 50 yards in the first half. Some of those passes should have been caught. It took a pass interference penalty on a deep throw to Hines Ward to give the Steelers’ offense a jolt early in the second quarter. That put the ball on the Washington 36 and set up a field goal to pull the Steelers to within 6-3.

It looked like the field goal tit-for-tat was going to continue despite the momentum swing of Frazier’s blocked punt. A sack and a holding penalty dragged the Steelers back to the 24, where they faced a second-and-21. Then Roethlisberger completed his final two passes of the evening, a 9-yarder to Holmes and a 14-yarder to Ward at the 1. Roethlisberger brought it in himself for the touchdown to give the Steelers a 10-6 lead at halftime.

With Roethlisberger cheering from the sidelines in the second half, Leftwich showed the Steelers he’s not just a Jaguars informant. A 50-yard pass to Nate Washington highlighted the opening drive of the second half, which culminated in a 1-yard Willie Parker touchdown run and 16-6 Steelers lead. It was the fourth reception of at least 48 yards in the last four games for Washington. A 5-yard touchdown pass to Holmes in the fourth quarter completed the scoring.

The Dandy Don Meredith “Turn Out the Lights” moment appeared to come when Campbell threw an incompletion on fourth down with 9:50 remaining in the game. But James Farrior was whistled for a ticky-tack helmet-to-helmet hit, which gave the Redskins life, as well as a first down at the Steelers’ 21. Campbell appeared to score on a 6-yard run with 7:26 left, but the Steelers challenged the play, and it was reversed. Then on the ensuing fourth-and-1 play, Farrior broke up Campbell’s pass in the end zone, locking up the win for the Steelers. No flags this time. Justice was done in Washington.

Decision ’08

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com political pundit
November 2, 2008

With the Steelers playing in the nation’s capital on the eve of the election, let’s take a look at the presidential race.

It looks like America is going to choose a young, promising African-American. To balance the ticket, this candidate has an older running mate with decades of experience.

Here they are:

Dick LeBeau specializes in defense, which should put to rest any national security concerns if Mike Tomlin becomes Commander-in-Chief.

A look at the polls

Both the Steelers and Redskins have a Washington, a Taylor and a Carter. The Redskins have a Jackson and a Wilson. But the Steelers have a Madison and two Harrisons, one for each Harrison that served as president.

Backup linebacker Arnold Harrison would be more representative of Benjamin Harrison. Arnold Harrison’s on injured reserve, and Benjamin Harrison was president during Wounded Knee.

William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia a month after his inauguration. James Harrison would be more in line with him, because his presidency was over, well, in a snap.

While the Steelers have six presidential names and the Redskins have just five, the Redskins have locked up the electoral votes of California, Oregon and Washington. Why? Because quarterback Jason Campbell has mastered the West Coast offense. He hasn't thrown an interception this season and has thrown 252 straight passes without a pick.

A look at who’s running

Whether or not he wins the election, Barack Obama has done his part to keep Clinton out of the White House. Now the Steelers have to keep Clinton from getting to the house.

Redskins running back Clinton Portis has rushed for at least 120 yards in five straight games. He and O.J. Simpson are the only running backs to accomplish that feat twice.

The Steelers’ run defense, ranked third in the NFL, will have its hands full, especially with underrated safety Ryan Clark, a former Redskin, out with a separated shoulder. Clark will be replaced by Tyrone Carter, who was born March 31, 1976, while his presidential namesake was likely hot on the campaign trail.

Although it’s not official, the Steelers finally might have running mates in their backfield. Two-time Pro Bowler Willie Parker is likely to return after being out four games with a knee injury. Mewelde Moore has replaced him and averaged 101 yards with four touchdowns in his three starts. So the Steelers could have a formidable tandem covering ground in the final hours of the campaign.

A look at the issues

Tomlin would make a great president because he doesn’t waffle on the issues. He would probably be strongly opposed to legalizing marijuana. Santonio Holmes gets caught with blunts in his car, the coach suspends him for a very important game. No questions asked. The Buck Stops Here.

Unfortunately, Redskins coach Jim Zorn would probably beat Tomlin in a debate. He shows a little more emotion in his press conferences, while Tomlin usually just echoes the party line.

Tomlin, though, can be a reassuring leader, much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his fireside chats. Steelers Nation was in crisis after a costly win over the Ravens the night of Sept. 29. Rashard Mendenhall and Kendall Simmons were both injured in the game and out for the season. But Tomlin calmly said that Moore would replace Mendenhall at running back and Darnell Stapleton would replace Simmons at guard. “The standard of expectations will not change,” Tomlin said. That rally cry of confidence became Tomlin’s official campaign slogan and led to three weeks of prosperity for Steelers Nation.

A vote for Tomlin would be a vote to return America to its roots. Tomlin was born in Hampton, Va. Seven of the first 12 presidents were born in Virginia. Overall, eight presidents were born in Virginia, more than any other state. Get Tomlin into the White House, put a powdered wig on him and it will be 1800 all over again.

But before we elect a new president, let’s not forget about the man who has served for the last eight years. After all, he has what the Steelers need Monday night – a “W.”

Physical education

Giants 21, Steelers 14

By Mike Batista
October 27, 2008

Admit it.

You thought pass protection was no longer a problem for the Steelers.

You thought the Steelers finally had the right men on the offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger.

You thought the Steelers knew what they were doing when they held onto undrafted free agent Darnell Stapleton.

 You thought $7 million backup Max Starks was finally proving his worth.

At least that’s what I thought. After all, the Steelers had gone almost seven quarters without allowing a sack.

Then it happened again.

Just like it had earlier in the season, the offensive line became the Steelers’ cement shoes in Sunday’s loss to the Giants.

The first two sacks bookended the Steelers’ last series of the first half. On third-and-2 from the Giants’ 36, Mathias Kiwanuka registered one of his three sacks for a 9-yard loss, knocking the Steelers out of field-goal range with a minute left in the half and preserving the Giants’ 9-7 lead.

The third sack came on third-and-11 from the Steelers’ 30 and forced a punt early in the third quarter.

The fourth sack set up the game-tying points with the Steelers desperately holding on to a 14-12 lead. Roethlisberger was brought down at the Steelers’ 18. On the ensuing punt, James Harrison replaced injured long snapper Greg Warren and snapped the ball out of the end zone for a safety.

The Giants needed the fifth sack about as much as Yao Ming needs to stand on a chair to change a light bulb. The Steelers were down 21-14 facing third-and-10 from their own 10 with 1:41 left. Roethlisberger had completed 2 of 9 passes in the fourth quarter. Then Kiwanuka completed his sack hat trick. The Steelers didn’t lose any yards because Willie “Flag Boy” Colon recovered a Roethlisberger fumble at the line of scrimmage.

So how was the Steelers’ offensive line able to protect Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter against Jacksonville and for the entire game against Cincinnati? Here’s how: The Jaguars have nine sacks this season and the Bengals have six, 30th and 31st, respectively, in the NFL. The Giants are now first in the NFL with 26.

The Steelers led the league entering the game with 25 sacks, but the Giants offensive line, which has started every regular-season game in front of Eli Manning since the beginning of the 2007 season, didn’t allow a sack Sunday.

This was smash mouth football between two old-school NFL franchises intertwined by marriage, and except for the Steelers’ two scoring plays and their goal-line stand, the Giants won the physical battle. Their 9-7 halftime lead easily could have been 21-7. Four trips into the red zone yielded just three field goals. Brandon Jacobs, the Giants’ 264-pound running back, out-toughed the Steelers’ stout run defense in the first half – until he was stuffed three times at the goal line early in the second quarter.

On third-and-goal from the 1, Jacobs had a touchdown reversed by a Steelers challenge. Then as the Steelers’ defense waited for the Giants to line up on fourth-and-goal, Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke knelt side by side in the end zone. The Guardians of the Goal Line. You just knew the Giants weren’t getting in. It was Ryan Clark who first got a hand on Jacobs’ shoulder, slowing him up enough for rest of the Steelers’ defense to swallow him up and protect their 7-3 lead.

Clark prevented another Giants touchdown early in the fourth quarter, whacking Giants’ receiver Steve Smith to knock the ball loose on a deep pass near the Steelers’ goal line. But the toll of that play was more than Clark could pay. He left the game with a separated shoulder.

The physicality of this game was like a rodeo bull, and Clark wasn’t the only Steeler who got the horns. Punter Mitch Berger pulled a hamstring in his non-kicking leg, but stayed in the game. Warren tore his ACL and is out for the season.

Warren’s injury cost the Steelers (5-2) two points when Harrison stepped in for him and sent a snap into orbit on that fateful punt. The ball rolled out of the end zone, giving the Giants two points and tying the game 14-14 with 6:48 left.

The Giants (6-1) took the ensuing free kick and marched 53 yards on seven plays for the winning drive, culminating in Manning’s 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Boss.

Sure, the Steelers owned the highlight reel. Mewelde Moore’s 32-yard touchdown run. Roethlisberger’s 65-yard TD pass to Nate Washington.

But the Giants – slower, steadier and, yes, stronger – won the race.

Our new best friend

By Mike Batista
October 21, 2008

Thank you, Brandon Tierney.

Thank you for providing Steelers Nation with cyberspace bulletin board material by referring to the Steelers as “paper champions” Tuesday night on ESPN Radio.

While the Steelers are vulnerable just like any team in today’s NFL, the term “paper champions” is a little extreme. Sunday’s game against the Giants doesn’t scare me as much as it did about a month ago.

Former Giants coach Bill Parcells used to say “you are what you are.” The Steelers are 5-1 for a reason.

They beat Jacksonville at Jacksonville, which is no easy task. They can win close games – they have one win by three points, one by four points and one by five points – and as they showed in Sunday’s 38-10 win at Cincinnati, they can beat up on the teams they’re supposed to beat up on. The Giants needed overtime – at home – to beat the Bengals.

Yes, the Steelers’ offensive line has been a glaring weakness this season. But has anyone noticed that they haven’t allowed a sack in nearly five quarters? And on the other side of the ball, the Steelers lead the NFL with 25 sacks. We saw in the Giants’ loss to the Browns that despite his Super Bowl ring, Eli Manning can still be made to look like a kid who’s had his lunch money stolen.

OK, OK, the Giants are tied for second in the NFL with 21 sacks. So the Steelers’ improved offensive line will be put to the test on Sunday.

The Steelers have shown that a good running game can slow down a pass rush, and they could get Willie Parker back on Sunday. But even if they don’t, they still have Mewelde Moore. A paper champion would crumble with the loss of a star running back like Parker. But the Steelers’ running game hasn’t missed a beat with Moore playing in Parker’s place. That’s the sign of a championship caliber team, not a paper champion.

Let’s not take anything away from the 5-1 Giants. They’re the Steelers’ toughest opponent so far this season. By the same token, the Giants haven’t faced anyone as good as the Steelers.

If you shut me up …

Steelers 38, Bengals 10

By Mike Batista
October 19, 2008

When the going got tough, Mewelde Moore got going.

During halftime of Sunday’s game in Cincinnati, I told the Steelers fan sitting next to me at the bar that maybe the Steelers were starting to miss Willie Parker. The Steelers (5-1) scored on two of their first three possessions to take a 10-0 lead, and then had decent field position on all three of their possessions in the second quarter. But they had to punt each time, and clung to a 10-7 lead at the half.

Moore, starting in place of injured Willie Parker, had just 37 yards in the first half. I told my fellow Steelers fan that Parker might have been able to break a long run on one of those frustrating second-quarter possessions, perhaps giving the Steelers a more comfortable lead. I thought maybe Moore had become the Charlie Batch of Steelers running backs, able to step in and help them win a game or two, but no replacement for the starter.

So what does Moore do? On the Steelers’ first offensive play of the second half, he picks up 24 yards, then five plays later ends the drive with a 13-yard touchdown run to give the Steelers a 17-7 lead. The Bengals never got closer than a touchdown after that.

I think talking negatively about Steelers players is working out well.

Moore ended up with 120 yards on 20 carries with two rushing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown.

When Parker does return to the lineup, Moore should at least give the Steelers the 1-2 punch at running back they were hoping for when they drafted Rashard Mendenhall.

The Steelers’ lead was still an uneasy 17-10 after three quarters. Just when I was becoming resigned to the fact that the Steelers – just like the Giants and Cowboys – were going to have to go to the wall to beat the winless Bengals (0-7), the Steelers exploded for 21 points in the fourth quarter to break the game open.

They went up 24-10 on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Nate Washington, the real Ocho Cinco. Then Moore punched it in from two yards out to make it 31-10 with 5:22 left.

With the game well in hand, Roethlisberger was given the rest of the afternoon off. Big Ben must have felt like a basement apartment renter staying at the Taj Mahal for a night. After being sacked 19 times this season, he was barely touched Sunday. He watched as his understudy, Byron Leftwich, completed the scoring with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward.

It didn’t go so well for Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Bengals didn’t get a first down until 4:27 remained in the first half. But then Fitzpatrick strung together a 14-play, 92-yard touchdown drive. It looked like this career backup had figured out the Steelers defense, which concerned me a little until I remembered he’s from Harvard, so he can figure out anything. Fitzpatrick threw for 164 yards. I hear Vegas’ next exotic bet will be if Fitzpatrick’s passing yardage is higher than his IQ.

Perhaps Fitzpatrick was aided in the second and third quarters by a tilted playing field.

The game was delayed a few minutes because one of the teams, I’m not sure which, lined up on the wrong side of the field for the opening kickoff. That might have been more of a factor than most people realize. The Steelers outscored the Bengals 31-0 in the first and fourth quarters, but were outscored 10-7 in the second and third quarters, when the teams switched sides, and it wasn’t a windy day. Hmmm.

But seriously. It’s a good thing the Steelers are stockpiling the wins now, because their schedule’s going to get a lot tougher.

Or is it?

They play the Giants next week at Heinz Field. If the Browns can whip the Giants’ asses, so can the Steelers. Then they play at the Redskins, who lost to the Rams. And do the Colts, Chargers, Patriots and Cowboys really scare anyone anymore?

My preseason prediction for the Steelers was 11-5. They appear to be on target.

Back to the bar

By Mike Batista
October 17, 2008
(Updated October 18)

Out-of-market Steelers fans like me have been spoiled. Their last four games have been on national TV, which meant that Steelers fans in Boulder, Colo.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Hillside, N.J.; Lugoff, S.C. and Beltsville, Md., all have been able to watch the Steelers from the comforts of home.

But not this week. For most Steelers fans outside of Pennsylvania and Ohio, it’s back to your favorite sports bar and seeing which of the 237 TVs will show the Steelers-Bengals game. Of course, even if you can watch the Steelers in your living room, the lure of beer, pizza and wings can be hard to resist.

With thanks to J.P. Kirby at the506.com, I will begin linking to TV distribution maps this week that show the geographic breakdown of televised NFL games. That way Steelers fans all over the country will be able to find out if the Steelers will be shown in their area.

This week's Steelers game will be on CBS. You know it’s not exactly their game of the week when Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon are the announcers.

But beware of the cats.

The Bengals might be 0-6, but they took the Super Bowl-champion Giants to overtime and gave the Cowboys a game. We’ve seen evidence in other games that the Giants and Cowboys might not be that great. So maybe playing tough against those teams gives us no reason to fear the Bengals.

But for our purposes, we have to assume that the Bengals are dangerous. I’ve always been a firm believer that road games in the division should never be taken lightly, even though there are a lot of Terrible Towels in the stands.

Just keep hitting

Let me get this straight. All Hines Ward gets for being the best blocking receiver in the NFL is a bunch of bills from the commissioner’s office.

Terrell Owens whines about not getting the ball enough, even when he touches it 30 times. Chad Johnson gets attention by trying to change his name. And both of those guys spend as much time choreographing their next touchdown dances as they do studying their playbook.

Those guys are showmen. Hines Ward is a football player.

The wide receiver position probably has the highest concentration of prima donnas in the NFL. So the Steelers must be pretty damn bad-ass if they have a receiver who gets fined for his hits. It’s one of the reasons Ward has a Super Bowl ring, and Owens, Johnson, Randy Moss don’t.

Going the distance

Steelers 26, Jaguars 21

By Mike Batista
October 6, 2008

Hines Ward provided the first sign that the Steelers’ four-game losing streak to the Jaguars would come to an end Sunday night.

Not long after Steelers nemesis Rashean Mathis returned an interception for a touchdown, his third TD all-time against the Steelers, he and Ward tangled. Ward matched Mathis push for push and shove for shove.

It was much like the scene in “Rocky IV” when Rocky finally hit Ivan Drago after getting his ass kicked for a round and a half. When I saw that in the theater, everyone cheered when Rocky landed that first punch. Rocky was done getting knocked around by the mammoth Russian.

The Jaguars have knocked the Steelers around for the last three years. In 2005, Ivan Mathis intercepted a Tommy Maddox pass in overtime and returned it for a touchdown to give the Jaguars the win.

Rashean Drago had two more interceptions when the Jaguars beat the Steelers 9-0 to deal them their first loss in a disappointing 2006 season.

Then last season, after the Jaguars beat the Steelers in December, Mathis struck again by returning a pick for a touchdown in the AFC wild-card game, which the Jaguars won 31-29.

But Ward sent the message that the Steelers weren’t going to be bullied by the Jaguars anymore when he locked horns with Mathis Sunday night. The Steelers won the fight. It was a fight that went the distance, to be sure. The game wasn’t decided until the final minutes. Neither of these AFC heavyweights would be knocked out.

Just like Rocky, the Steelers vanquished their foe in enemy territory. After all, what’s the difference between Siberia and Jacksonville, besides a few degrees on the thermometer?

And what’s a Rocky movie without a you-can’t-win-Rocky montage? Like the flashbacks to Apollo’s death and Rocky’s argument with Adrian, we saw eerie reminders of the Steelers’ excruciating playoff loss to the Jaguars in January.

First, Mathis returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown Sunday night to open the game’s scoring. In January, he returned a pick 63 yards for a TD, one of his two interceptions in that game.

The second reminder wasn’t nearly as painful, because it gave the Jaguars a taste of their own medicine.

With 2:57 left and the Jaguars leading 21-20, the Steelers were on the edge of field-goal range, facing third-and-eight at the Jaguars’ 31.

Ben Roethlisberger was about to be sacked, but he escaped and let the ball fly. Ward picked it out of the air for an 18-yard gain. Roethlisberger was still shaking off the effects of the hit three plays later, but he was able to hit Ward on a fade pattern for the game-winning touchdown with 1:59 to go.

Big Ben’s escape was like a photo negative of one of the most infamous plays in recent Steelers history. In last season’s AFC wild-card game, the Jaguars were faced with a fourth-and-2 from the Steelers 43 with no timeouts and 1:56 left. But David Garrard, who looks like Seal without welts on his face or Heidi Klum’s thong in his pocket, scrambled for 32 yards to the Steelers’ 11, setting up the game-winning field goal.

One notable absence in that game was Steelers’ run stuffer Aaron Smith, which really hurt the Steelers late last season. Smith was there Sunday night. And he Sealed the win for the Steelers when he batted down Garrard’s pass from the Jacksonville 33 on fourth down with 30 seconds left.

More Aaron Smith and less Najeh Davenport proved to be a winning formula for the Steelers. We saw way too much of Davenport in last year’s playoff loss. The Steelers picked him up last week to provide insurance in their depleted backfield, but thanks to Mewelde Moore, he was limited to one carry.

I said that Moore wouldn’t slice and dice the Jaguars’ defense for 100-something yards. I was right. He had only 99 yards. But my words ring hollow because Moore was a force running the ball. Those 99 yards came on 17 carries – a clip of nearly six yards per carry – and included a 27-yard gain that helped sustain the Steelers’ game-winning drive. It looks like the Steelers are getting some bang for their buck this season with their annual bargain-basement free agent pickup.

Now we have another eerie similarity. The Steelers are 4-1 heading into their bye week, just like last season. But it’s a more satisfying 4-1. They’ve been winning without Willie Parker, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel. They’ve been winning without a bit of help from their draft class. First-round pick Rashard Mendenhall could have contributed, but is out for the season along with right guard Kendall Simmons. They’ve been winning with an offensive line that has allowed 19 sacks. It’s a wonder Roethlisberger’s right arm is still attached to his shoulder.

Now the Steelers have a bye week to lick their wounds after going 15 rounds with the Jaguars.

Payback time

By Mike Batista
October 5, 2008

Anyone who doesn’t know how important tonight’s game is for the Steelers should read my column on their playoff loss to the Jaguars last season.

When the Steelers walked off Heinz Field last January, September seemed like a lifetime away.

Now the season is young again. The Steelers have a chance to go into their bye week 4-1, and in the process make life difficult for another AFC contender. A win over the Jaguars would make them 2-3 and it would come in handy if the Steelers and Jaguars are tied for a playoff spot.

And the Steelers can win this game.

The Jaguars’ two wins this season have come with last-second field goals. They easily could be 0-4. Half their secondary – cornerback Drayton Florence and safety Reggie Nelson – is out. Jacksonville is also without three of the five players who were supposed to start on the offensive line at the beginning of the season.

The Steelers also are dealing with injuries. Their top three running backs are out, which makes Mewelde Moore the starter. Moore showed in the Steelers’ overtime win against Baltimore that he can be a money player, catching a key third-down pass to get the Steelers into field-goal range and picking up seven key yards to set up Jeff Reed’s winning field goal. Moore’s a good yards-after-the-catch guy.

Still, Moore’s not going to slice and dice the Jaguars’ defense for 100-something yards. To score points tonight, the Steelers are going to have to let Ben Roethlisberger loose. It’s time to spread that offense and let Roethlisberger earn his $102 million. Throw to Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington (has anyone noticed his emergence over the last couple of games?) Throw underneath to Heath Miller. Throw screens to Moore out of the backfield. The point is to make Rashean Mathis’ head spin.

Mathis is not among the Jaguars’ injured defensive backs. The Steelers killer has intercepted five passes in the Jaguars’ last four games against the Steelers, returning two of those for touchdowns. The touchdowns came in last years’ playoff game, and in a Jaguars’ overtime win in 2005. The mission for the Steelers aerial unit is to torch Mathis.

Of course, none of this is going to happen if the Steelers’ offensive line doesn’t protect Roethlisberger. The Jaguars have only five sacks this season, 27th in the NFL. That means the Steelers’ O-Line should be able to hold Jacksonville to two or three sacks. I’ll take that.

On the other side of the ball, let’s hope the pixie dust has worn off Seal lookalike David Garrard. The Steelers currently have the No. 2 defense in the NFL and are better equipped to stop the run than they were in both of their games against the Jaguars last season.

When the Jaguars beat the Steelers in last season’s AFC wild-card playoff game, Ben Roethlisberger stood off to the side while Garrard was being interviewed by NBC. He was waiting to congratulate Garrard. That showed class and leadership.

Hopefully Garrard will return the favor tonight.

A load of crap

By Mike Batista
September 30, 2008

The Steelers needed a running back. Former Most Valuable Player Shaun Alexander was available, but the Steelers brought back Najeh Davenport.

What are they thinking?

Davenport’s biggest strength is shitting in laundry baskets. He is not an NFL-caliber starting running back. Alexander isn’t what he once was, but I’d much rather have him keeping the seat warm for Willie Parker than Davenport. And I’d feel a lot better having Alexander as a backup when Parker returns. Actually, as a backup this season, I’d put Alexander on the same level as Mendenhall. Even if Mendenhall didn’t get hurt, he’d still be in the learning process as a rookie and wouldn’t have been any better as a backup than the veteran Alexander.

According to ProFootballTalk.com, Alexander has visited the Bengals, Saints and Lions since being cut by the Seahawks. So it’s not like he doesn’t want to make a comeback.

Parker has at least two weeks to recuperate from his knee sprain. He’ll sit out Sunday’s game at Jacksonville. The Steelers then have a bye week. It sounds like he’ll be able to play in Cincinnati on Oct. 19. Then he’d have fresh wheels for the final 11 games of the season. Hopefully the wheels don’t come off again, because I want Davenport to stay the hell off the field.

Cliff notes

Steelers 23, Ravens 20, OT

By Mike Batista
September 30, 2008

Everybody’s talking about Jarret Johnson’s personal foul as the turning point Monday night in the Steelers’ 23-20, overtime win over the Ravens.

I say the turning point came a little bit before that.

The Ravens led 13-3 with 5:55 left in the third quarter, and punted from their own 40-yard line. Sam Koch’s punt went out of bounds, and it looked like the Steelers were going to get the ball deep in their own territory. But the official walked up the sideline to mark the ball. He kept walking. And walking. He sort of looked like the yodeling mountain man in the Cliff Hangers game on “The Price Is Right.” He glided past hash mark after hash mark until finally stopping at the Steelers’ 33. Pretty good field position.

Then Johnson’s penalty came after Nate Washington gained 8 yards on a reverse, giving the Steelers (3-1) a first down at the Ravens’ 44. Mike Tomlin actually made a good coaching decision by switching to a no-huddle offense. Three plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes.

On the first play of the Ravens’ next possession, quarterback Joe Falco (OK, I know it’s Flacco) was rocked like Amadeus by James Harrison and fumbled. LaMarr Woodley picked it up and scored to give the Steelers a 17-13 lead with 3:54 left in the third quarter.

The Steelers’ season seemed to be on a road to nowhere when they trailed 13-3 in the third quarter. But then, after scoring a total of 12 points in 137 minutes and 22 seconds, the Steelers scored 14 points in 15 seconds. Suddenly a morose Steelers crowd exploded in a roaring sea of Terrible Towel waves.

Jeff Reed’s 46-yard field goal in overtime capped a win that was sort of reminiscent of the Steelers’ 31-28 win over the Browns last season at Heinz Field.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Like they did in that win over the Browns, the Steelers had to come from behind at home against a divisional opponent, then needed some drama at the end to pull out the win.

Even though the Steelers are 3-1, I don’t think this bodes well for them. I can’t help but think back to last season, when the Steelers improved to 7-2 with that emotional win over the Browns. It turned out to be as good as it got for the Steelers. After that win, they went 3-5, counting their playoff loss to the Jaguars, as their weaknesses started to show.

The 2008 Steelers’ most glaring weakness, the offensive line, took a step forward Monday night, allowing just three sacks, none after halftime. But the unit was dealt a setback when its steadiest player, right guard Kendall Simmons, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. He was replaced by Darnell Stapleton.

Also lost for the season is rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall with a fractured shoulder. Getting his first career NFL start, Mendenhall had some promising runs, just like he did in the opener against Houston. But now, unfortunately, his rookie year is over. Willie Parker was already out with a knee sprain. And Carey Davis was also hurt during the game. That left Mewelde Moore, who shows more skill as a pass catcher, as the only healthy running back.

Parker also will miss Sunday’s game at Jacksonville. That means the Steelers will have to sign a running back. Let’s hope it’s not Najeh Davenport. That’s a reminder of 2007 the Steelers don’t need.

Steelers fans experienced enough 2007 déjà vu on Monday night, especially on the Ravens’ game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. Trailing 20-13, Baltimore took the ball with 9:19 left and went 76 yards on nine plays. Le’Ron McClain (who?) scored on a 2-yard run to tie the game with just over four minutes left in regulation.

Not being able to hold a lead in the fourth quarter. Vintage 2007 Steelers.

Hey, it could have been worse. At least the Steelers didn’t have Daniel Sepulveda to screw them on field position. Unlike Robo-Punter, Mitch Berger came through in the clutch Monday night. With 1:40 left in regulation, the 14-year veteran punted 44 yards to the Ravens’ 13, with no return. The Ravens just ran out the clock and settled for overtime.

No way this game should have come down to a coin flip. The Steelers showed they could overcome a lost coin flip and win in overtime. But they’re going to have to overcome a lot more than that. Their offensive line still has to get better. So does their conditioning. Any more injuries, and they could fall off that cliff.

Where have we seen this?

By Mike Batista
September 28, 2008

Once upon a time, an NFL team known for its hard-nosed style of play drafted a quarterback from an unheralded program in the middle of the first round in the NFL draft.

He was the team’s quarterback of the future, but because of an injury to the incumbent, he ended up starting sooner than anyone expected. He saw his first NFL action against a division rival.

Because his team had the top rushing offense in the NFL, this young quarterback wasn’t asked to do too much, and his team started winning games.

This tall quarterback had a strong arm and a last name that was hard to forget.

I must be talking about Ben Roethlisberger, right?


I’m talking about Joe Flacco.

All of a sudden, there’s optimism in Baltimore. The Ravens are 2-0 heading into Monday night’s showdown against  the Steelers at Heinz Field. This looked like an easy win for the Steelers when the schedule was printed. Now the Ravens have a chance to take control of the AFC North.

Unproven rookie Rashard Mendenhall starts for the Steelers at running back behind a wobbly offensive line. On the other side of the ball will be the NFL’s top defense by far. The Ravens are allowing 161 yards per game. The Steelers are second at 234 yards per game.

Despite the Steelers’ pass protection woes, the Ravens are a team they should beat.

Flacco, who was drafted 18th overall out of Delaware, joins John Elway and Ryan Leaf as the only rookie quarterbacks to start a season 2-0. But it’s too early to tell if he’s going to turn out more like Elway or Leaf. Flacco really hasn’t done much in the Ravens’ two wins. Against the lowly Bengals and Browns, he has a 55.7 passer rating with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s also been aided by the NFL’s top rushing attack.

The Steelers’ offensive line isn’t going to fix all of its problems in one week. Roethlisberger is probably going to get sacked four or five times. We’ve come to expect that. But the Steelers have the offensive firepower to overcome the Ravens’ defense, and the home crowd should give them a jolt. The Steelers will be looking to extend their NFL record by winning their 14th straight Monday-night home game. They’re 35-22 all-time on Monday night.

By winning, the Steelers would be taking care of business and regaining control of the division. If they lose to this team, however, it might be a long season.

To my faithful visitors: Despite my earlier message, I did not go to Rhode Island. So enjoy my game column over breakfast Tuesday morning.

Dropping like flies

By Mike Batista
September 23, 2008

The Steelers are turning into a Band of Brothers. Someone might as well be shouting “Medic!” after every other play.

Now Willie Parker has a sprained knee and will miss Monday night’s game against the Ravens. Somewhere Ray Lewis must be running around like a kid in his footy pajamas on Christmas morning.

Parker joins nose tackle Casey Hampton in the infirmary. Hampton will miss Monday night’s game with a groin injury. Defensive end Brett Keisel is already out at least three more weeks with a calf injury.

I couldn’t blame the Steelers for being seduced by the availability of Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed in the first two rounds of the draft. But barely addressing the offensive and defensive lines is coming back to haunt the Steelers right now.

So Mendenhall gets the start Monday. His first three carries of the season, in the opener against the Texas, went for 21 yards. But we haven’t seen much from him since then. He dropped a pass when the Steelers were desperately trying to come back late in the game against the Eagles. And he almost cost the Steelers the win over the Browns when he muffed a punt.

It’s time the Steelers get some production from this year’s draft class. I know it’s a couple of years too early to start judging the 2008 draft. But after three games last season, third-round pick Matt Spaeth had a few catches and fourth-round pick Daniel Sepulveda was the starting punter. So far, Mendenhall is the only draft pick to dress for the Steelers this season (and Steelers fans will see him dressed in Champion clothing quite a bit in the coming weeks and months).

I just hope he doesn’t get dressed down by Lewis & Company Monday night.

Gonna cry now

Eagles 15, Steelers 6

By Mike Batista
September 21, 2008

I saw an inspirational sports movie set in Philadelphia.

It’s a tale of an aging athlete no one’s ever heard of. One day, however, he is discovered and joins the NFL.

In the original, this athlete faces long odds with his team clinging to a 10-6 lead in the fourth quarter. But he shows he’s not just another bum from the neighborhood when he punts the ball 64 yards from his own 11-yard-line to get his team out of the shadow of its own goal posts.

That movie did so well that they made a sequel: Rocca II.

In Rocca II, Sav Rocca, a former Australian rules football star, punts 54 yards to the Steelers’ 6-yard line, which leads to a safety and two crucial points for the Eagles, increasing their lead to 12-6 with eight minutes left.

In Rocca III, the fabled 34-year-old punter lets one go for 37 yards to the Steelers’ 7 with 5:34 left. Pittsburgh eventually fumbles, which sets up a field goal for the game’s final points.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, Sunday’s 15-6 loss wasn’t fiction. The harsh reality is that there is nothing inspiring about their offensive line. Eagles defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson might be a blitzing genius, but allowing nine sacks is unforgivable, against any defense.

Six of those sacks came during a span of 10 plays in the second quarter, with the Steelers trailing 10-3. One of those sacks led to a lost fumble. Old tormenter Asante Samuel pulled down an interception on one of the four plays that wasn’t a sack. Another one of those sacks made it necessary for Jeff Reed to kick a 53-yard field goal, the longest of his career, for what turned out to be the Steelers’ final points.

When Roethlisberger was sacked for the eighth and final time, he fumbled at the Steelers’ 18 with 3:29 left in the game. The Eagles (2-1) kicked a field goal to put the game out of reach.

The stats show that Roethlisberger ran the ball four times, but those were just four more failures by the offensive line. Those escapes from the Eagles’ pressure resulted in a total of only six yards. Roethlisberger punctuated one of those runs with an illegal forward pass, one play after a shaken offensive line was flagged for a false start. Those calamities stunted the Steelers’ opening drive of the second half.

Despite this mess, the Steelers (2-1) hung around.

The score was 10-6 at halftime, and it remained that way throughout the third quarter and into the fourth quarter. But you could just see the safety coming when the Steelers were backed up to their own 6 after the second of Rocca’s fourth-quarter punts (Rocca II). OK, maybe Roethlisberger didn’t intentionally ground the ball. But still, the offensive linemen have to protect that much better deep in their own territory, and they couldn’t do it.

Until the offensive line gets better, Roethlisberger gets a pass. In this space at least, he will not be criticized if he wants to get up slowly after being hit, if he wants to make a face if he’s feeling a little pain or if he wants to tell a little white lie about an injury.

He’s lucky to be alive.

In three games this season, damage has been done to Roethlisberger’s shoulder and perhaps his throwing hand. Although an X-Ray showed no broken bones, the hand injury was enough to knock Roethlisberger out of Sunday’s game.

The Steelers’ offensive line has allowed 13 sacks this season. They’re on pace to allow 69, which would make last year’s O-Line look like Fort Knox. At least Roethlisberger didn’t have to absorb every sack Sunday. Byron Leftwich was officially christened as a Steeler when he was sacked.

By the way, let’s not get too excited about Leftwich’s performance. He completed 4 of 7 passes for 60 yards after the Eagles had called off the dogs on the blitz. But he couldn’t get the Steelers any closer than the Eagles’ 22.

The Steelers could have at least kicked the field goal on fourth down from the 22. Then they could have tried an onsides kick, and if they recovered they would have had at least a couple of shots at the end zone, even with no timeouts. Not a good coaching move by Mike Tomlin.

Regardless of any decision Tomlin made, however, the Steelers didn’t deserve to win this game. They got beat up. It was the worst performance I’ve ever seen by a Steelers offensive line. If the line doesn’t improve, not only are we going to see a lot more of Leftwich, but Dennis Dixon better learn fast.

Battleground state

By Mike Batista
September 21, 2008

Now this is a test.

Remember all that talk about the Steelers having the toughest schedule in the NFL this season? It sure hasn’t seemed that way the first two weeks. Well, today it will seem that way.

The Eagles are 1-1, with that one loss coming against the Super Bowl-caliber Cowboys 41-37 on Monday night. Donovan McNabb, who looks 10 years younger, has thrown for 642 yards and four touchdowns this season. If the Steelers don’t put pressure on McNabb, it could be a long day for the secondary.

Speaking of quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger went through a full practice Thursday. He says his shoulder is still sore, but then also said that everyone in the NFL has to deal with a little soreness. It’s nice to hear that from him. Maybe now he’ll take his nicks and scrapes like a man.

One of the more interesting things to come out of this whole Six Degrees of Shoulder Separation saga is Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s press conference on Tuesday. He finally showed some life at the microphone when he urged anyone to let him know where they heard the report of Roethlisberger’s shoulder being separated. It was the most exciting Tomlin press conference yet. Maybe we’ll see him on a Coors commercial.

Roethlisberger has thrown fewer than 20 passes in both games this season. That’s going to have to be the case today if the Steelers are to win. Willie Parker’s been doing a better job of grinding out the tough yards this season. He’s going to have to do it again today to keep the ball out of the hands of McNabb, Brian Westbrook and the dangerous DeSean Jackson.

The Eagles might have intangibles on their side. According to ESPN’s Sal Palantonio, Eagles center Jamaal Jackson’s brother was killed by a drunk driver in Miami on Sunday. Jackson missed practice this week, and attended the funeral on Saturday. He is scheduled to start today. The Eagles will be motivated to win one for their grieving teammate.

This is the first of four games the Steelers play against the NFC East, the strongest division in the NFL. It’s one of the things that makes the Steelers’ schedule the toughest in the NFL.

Stan could have
been the man

By Mike Batista
September 19, 2008

Stanley Druckenmiller said he’s dreamed of owning the Steelers. It’s a dream that won’t come true.

It’s unclear if the Rooney brothers not named Dan rejected his offer or if he pulled his bid off the table.

What is clear is that Druckenmiller will not be the owner of the Steelers.

And that’s too bad.

Druckenmiller, who is a Steelers fan, has Steelers season tickets and once painted his face at a Steelers game, would have paid cash up front to buy the 64 percent of the team owned by the other four Rooney brothers. He also would have allowed Dan Rooney and his son, Art Rooney II, to continue to run the team as they do now. It would have been the best-case scenario for the Steelers, especially with the threat of a post-salary cap NFL looming. Without any debt, Druckenmiller would have been able to spend the money to keep the Steelers competitive. That wouldn’t be the case if Dan Rooney bought out his brothers. His offer involves payments over a number of years.

The sale of the Steelers is necessary because under NFL rules, owners can’t have any ties to gambling. Some of Dan Rooney’s brothers own shares in racetracks with casino-style gambling. Also, NFL rules require the principal owner to own at least 30 percent of the team. Each of the five Rooney brothers own 16 percent.

Druckenmiller’s exit from the process doesn’t automatically mean the Rooney brothers will accept Dan’s offer.

The Rooney name is synonymous with the Steelers, but what good is it to keep the Steelers in the family if they become the Pirates of the NFL?

Had Druckenmiller’s offer been accepted, the Rooney name still would have been closely associated with the Steelers and the NFL. But Druckenmiller is out of the running. For him, season tickets will have to be enough.

Six Degrees of
Shoulder Separation

By Mike Batista
September 16, 2008

Now it’s a sprain.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder is sprained. So now it’s gone from sore to a separation of the AC joint to a sprain.

What we know is that the shoulder is hurting, and the $102 million man’s shoulder might be hurting for a while, possibly the entire season.

Roethlisberger will once again be limited in practice this week. Tomlin says he’s a quick study and doesn’t need a lot of reps in practice. Good thing. That’s more reps for Byron Leftwich, who’s going to be needed at some point this season.

ESPN’s John Clayton says he expects Roethlisberger to play Sunday against the Eagles. I think he’ll need to sit out at some point. If the Jaguars continue to suck, and that’s a big if, why not sit him out Oct. 5 at Jacksonville, and let Leftwich start in his Jacksonville homecoming? The bye week is Oct. 12, so that would give Roethlisberger two weeks to rest the shoulder. If the Jaguars become a factor, however, maybe the Steelers could sit Roethlisberger Oct. 19 at putrid Cincinnati. Either way, the Steelers need to use that bye week to give Big Ben’s shoulder some extra rest.

Speaking of injuries, defensive lineman Brett Keisel will be out for up to two months with a calf injury. Hope the Steelers can overcome that better than they overcame the loss of Aaron Smith last season.

City of Sore Shoulders

By Mike Batista
September 15, 2008

Apparently Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder really isn’t separated. He might have mentioned in one of NBC’s production meetings that it was separated. Then after completing 12 passes (including a key 48-yard connection with Santonio Holmes and a crucial 31-yard haul to Hines Ward) in a driving wind and rain, he stonewalled Andrea Kremer in the post-game interview when she asked how the shoulder was.

His grimacing during games after taking routine hits is bad enough. But trying to look like more of a hero by exaggerating injuries is over the line. He’s the quarterback who cried wolf. Also, all this talk about Roethlisberger’s shoulder is taking attention away from real injuries like Brett Keisel’s calf. Aside from quarterback (which is the case for any team), the area where the Steelers can least afford injuries is on the defensive line.

Hurts so good

Steelers 10, Browns 6

By Mike Batista
September 15, 2008

First, the bad news. Or potential bad news.

Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder is hurting. NBC’s Al Michaels revealed before last night’s game that Roethlisberger’s shoulder was separated. That sounds pretty serious.

After the game, Roethlisberger did a better job avoiding Andrea Kremer’s questions about his shoulder than he does avoiding pass rushers. Three times she asked how his shoulder was, and three times he changed the subject. So if he’s not talking about it, I’m guessing it’s not feeling great.

As I said when I previewed the game, Byron Leftwich is going to need to be on call this season.

Hopefully we’ll find out more about the shoulder this week. Or perhaps we don’t want to know. The truth might be scarier than information in a classified CIA file.

For now, let’s bask in the Steelers’ 10th straight win over the Cleveland Browns. And unlike last week’s breeze of a win over the Texans, I’m allowing us to bask in this win, because it came on the road against a division opponent that spent the whole offseason with nothing but beating the Steelers in mind.

The Steelers don’t get style points. This was the definition of winning ugly. Hines Ward was dropping passes. It was an adventure just about every time the Steelers tried to return a punt or a kickoff. James Farrior got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. James Farrior? Unsportsmanlike conduct? The offensive line allowed three sacks. That’s five for the season, which puts them on pace for 40. That would be better than last year, but still not good.

But the Steelers weren’t solely responsible for this muddled mess of a game. The weather provided a fitting backdrop, with the remnants of Hurricane Ike producing rain and wind. On both sides, this was a poorly coached game, and it was strewn with penalties. The Browns committed 10 infractions for 65 yards and the Steelers had seven for 60.

But the Steelers had some life rafts in this sea of ugliness. Despite his shoulder, Roethlisberger completed 12 of 19 passes for 186 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Ward caught the game’s only touchdown pass, atoning for two drops in the first half.

There was the defense, which yielded 208 yards, including 53 rushing on 25 carries. Bryant McFadden and Troy Polamalu had interceptions. It was Polamalu’s second of the season.

There was the Steelers’ kick and punt coverage, which held Joshua Cribbs in check.

Then there were the key plays that pulled the Steelers’ feet out of the fire.

With the game scoreless midway through the second quarter, the Steelers went for it on 4th and 1 from the Browns 40. They drew the Browns offsides, but just before that, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called timeout, negating the penalty. He knew it was on him. But it didn’t matter because Willie Parker picked up 13 yards for the first down. The drive culminated in Roethlisberger’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Ward, giving the Steelers a 7-0 lead with 6:29 left in the half.

The Browns then strung together their first decent drive of the game, but mismanaged the clock so badly that they were out of timeouts with eight seconds left in the half and the ball at the Steelers 11. With time for only one play, they went for the touchdown, and Polamalu intercepted the pass.

Jeff Reed’s 48-yard field goal made it 10-0 with 8:02 left in the third quarter. The drive began on the Steelers’ 16, and Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes for a 48-yard gain. That catch, one of five by Holmes, accounted for more than half of his 94 receiving yards Sunday.

The Browns got on the board on the following possession, a drive that was aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty on LaMarr Woodley and Farrior’s taunting infraction. Phil Dawson’s 31-yarder made it 10-3.

Then things got really scary. Rashard Mendenhall muffed the ensuing kickoff, which rolled out of bounds at the Steelers’ 2. Good move by Tomlin not giving Mendenhall any carries. This game wasn’t kid stuff. It was too tight to let a fumble-prone rookie get any touches.

It looked like momentum was in the Browns’ corner when Parker was stuffed for no gain at the 2. But Roethlisberger hit Ward on a 31-yard pass play. The Steelers ended up punting, but at least it wasn’t in the shadow of their own goal post.

Browns coach Romeo Crennel was booed when the Browns kicked a 38-yard field goal to make it 10-6 with 3:24 left. But he made the right call. The Browns had all their timeouts and Crennel trusted his defense to make a stop.

What wasn’t the right call was lining up in an onsides-kick formation and then kicking the ball to Matt Spaeth, who caught it at the 26. Not only did they not challenge the jittery Mendenhall, but they committed a penalty on top of it, putting the ball on the 31. Parker was stopped for no gain, but then Roethlisberger found Heath “Hands of God” Miller (just call him the H.O.G.) for 19 yards.

Two plays later, the Steelers picked up another first down when Parker (105 yards, 28 carries) ran 19 yards to the Browns’ 27 with 2:34 left.

Then Tomlin had one more questionable decision in him, deciding to go for it on 4th and 4 from the Cleveland 21 with 30 seconds left. They could have kicked the field goal and been almost assured of no worse than a tie (Crennel’s no Mike Shanahan). Were they that afraid to kick to Cribbs one more time?

But two incomplete passes sandwiched around Aaron Smith’s second sack closed the deal. Perhaps it was only fitting on this night that the Steelers finished off the Browns a little awkwardly.

They won ugly. So ugly, it was a thing of beauty.

Believe the hype


By Mike Batista
September 14, 2008

I listened to Pittsburgh’s ESPN Radio on the Internet this week and heard that today’s Steelers-Browns game lacks the usual hype.

The Cowboys might have taken the bite out of the Dawg Pound last Sunday. But that doesn’t mean the Browns aren’t dangerous.

In 1994 and 1997, the Steelers opened the season by losing big at home to the Cowboys. Both years, they reached the AFC championship game. A lot can change after Week 1.

Tonight’s game has been circled on calendars all over Cleveland since the schedule came out in April. Kick returner Joshua Cribbs was held out of the Dallas game so he could make his triumphant return against the Steelers and their suspect special teams. Even though the Steelers’ kick coverage was better in the season opener, it will face a tougher test tonight.

The Steelers should be able to make hay against the Browns’ depleted secondary, unless Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder is worse than the Steelers are letting on. When has Roethlisberger ever gone through an entire season completely healthy, anyway? Let’s come to terms with the fact that Byron Leftwich is going to have to win two or three games for the Steelers this season.

On defense, I hope the old guys up front get their naps in the afternoon. The Steelers will be facing a high-powered Cleveland offense.

It might be tempting to think Super Bowl after Tom Brady’s injury and losses by the Chargers, Jaguars, Browns and Colts in Week 1. But remember, the Jaguars also started last season with a loss to the Titans and they beat the Steelers in the playoffs. The Chargers started last season 1-3, and made it to the AFC championship game. The Colts will be heard from when Peyton Manning shakes off the rust. And I think the Patriots are still a 10-6 team without Brady.

The Super Bowl is a long way off. For now, the Steelers’ job is to beat their biggest traditional rival on a prime-time stage in front of a hostile crowd. That would show me a little more than their win over the lowly Texans in Week 1.

Bad sports

By Mike Batista
September 10, 2008

First let me say that I appreciate all of today’s traffic to Steelahs.com. But if you’re coming here to buy “Bernard Pollard Fan Club” T-shirts, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Another Steelers Web site is selling T-shirts honoring the Kansas City Chiefs safety who knocked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady out for the season. We need to stop celebrating Brady’s injury! Some are saying that Pollard’s hit was dirty. It wasn’t. What’s dirty is rejoicing in Brady’s misfortune.

As a Steelers fan, I can’t stand Tom Brady or the Patriots. Is Bill Belichick a cheater? Probably. But that doesn’t mean Brady deserved to have his knee blown out.

I know a lot of us are looking ahead to Nov. 30 and thinking the Steelers now have a better chance of beating the Patriots in Foxboro. But wouldn’t it be better if the Steelers beat the Brady-led Patriots? As great as the Steelers’ Super Bowl XL championship run was, isn’t it missing a little something without a win over the hated Patriots along the way?

Even without Brady, there’s no guarantee the Steelers will beat the Patriots on Nov. 30, or go further than them in the playoffs. I say the Patriots are still a 10-6 team without Brady. But if the Steelers do win in Foxboro for the first time in 11 years, don’t you want to see Brady dejectedly taking his helmet off and trudging off the field? Instead, he’s going to be on the sideline in street clothes, or in the booth wearing a $10,000 suit getting drunk with Robert Kraft. It just won’t be the same.

Tom Brady’s injury is nothing to cheer about. For fans of any team. It’s a sad day for the NFL. How would Steelers fans like it if it happened to Ben Roethlisberger? I think a lot of people need to sign up for Sportsmanship 101.

Houston not a problem

Steelers 38, Texans 17 

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com curmudgeon
September 7, 2008

The Steelers were in a no-win situation Sunday, even though they won.

They hammered the Houston Texans in the season opener. That’s exactly what they were supposed to do. Had they not won convincingly, there would have been a lot of “yeah, but.” Had they lost, people would be lining up to jump off every one of Pittsburgh’s 74 bridges, because the Texans are probably the easiest non-division opponent on the Steelers’ bear of a schedule.

All the Steelers gained Sunday was a “1” under the “W” in the standings. That’s important, don’t get me wrong, but we still have no way of knowing if the Steelers are any good.

On one hand, it was a case of déjà vu. The Steelers started their 2005 championship season by dominating the Titans at home in Week 1 then the Texans in Houston in Week 2. On the other hand, the Steelers looked as good as any team in the NFL last season when they opened with routs of the Browns, Bills and 49ers. But when the balmy sunshine of September and the bright colors of October gave way to the crisp air of November and December, the Steelers didn’t look so hot.

The heat outside was bearable, even a little pleasant, on Sunday. Just before leaving my apartment to watch the game at Bob Hyland’s Sports Page in White Plains, NY, I called an audible. I took off my Super Bowl XL Steelers T-shirt and put on a plain, old-fashioned white T-shirt with a Steelers helmet logo on it. The Steelers still have 27 players from that Super Bowl-winning team, but it was a long time ago. The glow has officially worn off. Ben Roethlisberger has to live up to his mammoth eight-year, $102 million contract. Mike Tomlin’s not a rookie coach anymore. It’s time for the Steelers to win another Super Bowl.

Super Bowls aren’t won in September, however. All the Steelers can do now is stockpile wins before the schedule gets really tough.

It didn’t take long for the Steelers to get on the board Sunday. Willie Parker scored the first of his three touchdowns on a 7-yard run 4:48 into the game to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead.

I have to admit, though, that my attention was divided when the Steelers scored their first points of the season. Seconds earlier, on another TV, I saw Patriots quarterback Tom Brady go down with a left-knee injury after being hit by the Chiefs’ Bernard Pollard. The Sports Page crowd, many of them Jets fans, cheered at the sight of Brady on the ground. Not cool. I hate Tom Brady as much as anyone, but if the Steelers are to somehow conquer the Patriots this season, it won’t be the same if Tom Brady isn’t the quarterback. You want to cheer when Brady gets knocked on his ass after a clean hit? Fine. You want to cheer when Brady trudges off the field with his head down after the Patriots choke in the Super Bowl? Fine. But cheering when Brady suffers an injury that could end his season? That’s a bad job.

An injury like that could happen to any NFL quarterback, including Roethlisberger, and Lord knows Big Ben makes it look like he’s hurt at least once a game. Roethlisberger once again put our hearts in our throats late in the first half when he was slow to get up after a hit. At the start of the second half, the screen was split between Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich warming up. So was Big Ben hurt or not? Well, he came out for the second half but threw only four passes. Leftwich played the fourth quarter because the Steelers had a 35-3 lead. Roethlisberger’s probably OK. I just wish he’d suck it up when he gets hit hard.

To go with that scary moment, there was also a spooky moment in the second quarter. Mario Williams sacked Roethlisberger and forced a fumble. DeMeco Ryans picked it up and returned it 41 yards to the Steelers’ 24. The Steelers had a 21-0 lead at the time, but the play was a haunting reminder of the last time the Texans played in Pittsburgh. If you’re new to Steelers Nation, I’ll fill you in. On Dec. 8, 2002, the Steelers outgained the Texans 422-47, but the Texans scored touchdowns on a fumble return and two interception returns and won 24-6.

Fortunately, Roethlisberger’s fumble was the Steelers’ only turnover Sunday, and the Texans got just three points off it. Roethlisberger completed 13 of 14 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns, both to Hines Ward, who caught six passes for 76 yards.

Parker gained 138 yards on 25 carries. His touchdowns, which came on runs of 7, 13 and 4 yards, made his numerous short gains and no gains worthwhile, at least for one game.

A couple of young pups looked good, too. The Steelers are expecting big things this season from second-year linebacker LaMarr Woodley, and he didn’t disappoint. He had a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery. The interception came four minutes into the second quarter when he basically hauled in a Matt Schaub pass with just his left arm.

On the next play, we got our first glimpse of Rashard Mendenhall. He carried the ball for six yards. Mendenhall’s prescription for fumble-itis must be working. He carried the ball 10 times for 28 yards without a drop. His first three carries went for 21 yards. Not bad. I didn’t think we’d see that much of the rookie running back this early in the season.

Steelers young and old got the job done in Week 1, even if it was an easy win that didn’t prove anything.


Summary: Willie Parker ran for three touchdowns, gaining 138 yards on 25 carries. Ben Roethlisberger completed 13 of 14 passes, including two touchdowns to Hines Ward. On defense, second-year linebacker LaMarr Woodley had a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Comment: I should keep my mouth shut when I watch the Steelers. Right after I told a fellow Steelers fan that Ryan Clark is the team’s most underrated defensive player, he gets flagged for pass interference in the fourth quarter.

Did anyone notice … that on the season’s first running play by a Steelers opponent, Aaron Smith made the tackle, stopping Steve Slaton for no gain. It’s nice to have him back.
Where I watched the game: Bob Hyland’s Sports Page, White Plains, NY. Going by fan gear (jerseys, caps, etc.), I counted fans of 16 teams. That’s half the NFL. Football season is here!