2009 Season: Hands on Balls

The following are posts from Steelahs.com, which was my Steelers blog before I started Respect The Towel.

January 4, 2010

Pulling the plug

Steelers 30, Dolphins 24

By Mike Batista

Perhaps it's fitting that Texans' safety Bernard Pollard was a central figure in Sunday's intricate plot.

With a hair more than 14 minutes remaining in their respective games, the Steelers took a 27-10 lead in Miami and the Patriots took a 27-13 lead in Houston.

It looked like the 1 p.m. chapter of this trilogy would play out perfectly for the Steelers. Had they and the Patriots held on, the Steelers would have needed a Ravens loss or tie at 4 p.m. OR a Jets loss or tie in the night game.

Maybe, just maybe, the Steelers would get into the playoffs.

Feeling their pain

Before euphoria could ensue, the Steelers' lead was whittled to three and the Patriots' lead was gone.

Maybe a minute after Dolphins' third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen threw a 34-yard touchdown to Davone Bess to narrow the Steelers' lead to 27-24, Pollard intercepted Brady at the Patriots' 43 with four minutes left, setting up the winning touchdown for the Texans.

This is the same Pollard who shredded Brady's knee and ended his season in Week 1 last year. The next day, "Bernard Pollard Fan Club" T-shirts became a hot item among Steelers fans.

That fan club probably lost a lot of members after that interception Sunday. Not that it ultimately mattered. The plug was pulled on the Steelers' playoff hopes when the Ravens defeated the Raiders 21-13. Then the Bengals took the night off against the Jets.

Say this about the Patriots, Brady played most of the game even after Wes Welker was lost for the playoffs with a knee injury. They played to win. The integrity displayed by Bill Belichick elevated his standing to the point that now he's just a prick.

I got on my soapbox last year when certain Steelers fans celebrated Brady's injury with those Bernard Pollard T-shirts. I asked how we'd like it if something similar happened to the Steelers.

Well, it did happen. Sort of.

Like the Patriots in 2008, the Steelers lost a franchise player with the season just minutes old. And like the Patriots in 2008, they damn near made the playoffs without him.

Troy Polamalu packed a career highlight reel into less than a half of football when the Steelers opened the 2009 season against the Titans. He had six tackles and one interception before Alge Crumpler crumpled his knee.

Unlike Brady in 2008, Polamalu did return for three full games, helping the Steelers go 6-2. But he hurt his knee again in Week 10 against the Bengals, and his season was over.

The Steelers were without Polamalu for 11 games, and that's all you need to know about their 2009 season. It will forever be remembered as the year Polamalu got hurt.

Rising from the ashes

The third season of the Mike Tomlin Era obviously won't be remembered as fondly as the second. But I think it will ultimately have a sweeter taste than the first, when the Steelers started 7-2 but were slowly deflated by injuries, and were a dead team walking before a heartbreaking playoff loss to Jacksonville.

There's something to be said for the way the 2009 Steelers emerged from the ruins of a five-game losing streak. They finished the season with three straight wins and still had a chance to make the playoffs when their work was done.

You could call Sunday's game a season finale in the same sense as a TV series, because the story line was familiar. The Steelers built a big lead and let their opponent back in the game in the fourth quarter.

But in a stunning conclusion, they secured the lead with the help of some characters that might be written out of the story next season.

Dolphins' receiver Brian Hartline went 16 yards on an end around for a touchdown to narrow the Steelers' lead to 27-17 with 11:32 left in the game. After a Steelers' three-and-out, the Dolphins needed just three plays to score again. Bess's TD made it 27-24 with 8:46 to go.

It looked like this fourth-quarter collapse would dwarf all others when less than two minutes later, Ben Roethlisberger was strip-sacked and Joey Porter (who else?) recovered the fumble at the Steelers' 21.

But with 6:10 left, Ryan Clark intercepted Thigpen at the Steelers' 2. Thigpen was in the game because starter Chad Henne hurt his eye and backup Pat White was taken off on a stretcher after a helmet-to-helmet hit by Ike Taylor.

Then Willie Parker gained 74 yards on nine carries as the Steelers milked the clock with a 14-play, 98-yard drive that ended with a 33-yard field goal by Jeff Reed and a 30-24 lead with 45 seconds left.

Clark and Parker both will be free agents and aren't likely to be back with the Steelers next year. If they're not back, this was a nice ride into the sunset.

For that matter, Deshea Townsend also might not be back. The 34-year-old, who shares with Hines Ward the distinction as the longest-tenured Steeler, grabbed the first interception by a Steelers cornerback this season with 5:32 left in the first half. The Steelers had just taken a 17-10 lead on Reed's 22-yard field goal.

Ike Taylor, who probably will be back next season, followed Townsend's example with an interception of his own. The stone-handed Taylor picked off Thigpen at the Dolphins' 38 with 36 seconds left to seal the Steelers' win.

If Taylor and his fellow cornerbacks (yeah, I'm talking to you, Joe Burnett) could have held onto the ball in the first 15 games of the season like they did Sunday, the Steelers might have had one more win, which is all they needed to make the playoffs.

The Steelers also might have had one more win had Polamalu played anything close to a full season.

Al Michaels was calling the game when Polamalu hurt his knee on Sept. 10.

Four months later, Steelers fans had to ask themselves if they believed in miracles.

Not this year.

January 3, 2010

Against all odds

Steelers did all they could do by beating the Dolphins 30-24. I never thought I'd say these words, but the Patriots' loss hurts.

Now the Steelers need the Ravens and Broncos to lose or tie now and Jets to lose or tie tonight in order to make the playoffs at 9-7.

I won't be watching most or all of the 4 p.m. games. To quote "Good Will Hunting," I have to see about a girl. My chances with this young lady are probably about as good as the Steelers' chances of making the playoffs.

Depending on how the Ravens and Broncos do, I'll start my column after those games or after the Bengals-Jets game.

The later I start my column, the better.

Bye for now.

January 2, 2010

A win and a prayer

By Mike Batista

OK, so on Sunday the Patriots' starters might be sunning themselves in Houston and the Bengals' starters might be sipping hot cocoa around a fire in New Jersey.

Let's stop complaining about the possibility of the Patriots and Bengals half-assing it and losing to keep the Steelers out of the playoffs. The Steelers brought this on themselves by losing five in a row, including losses to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns.

Let's just be happy that on the final day of the regular season, the Steelers are still playing meaningful football. Who would have thought that was possible three weeks ago on that bitter, cold Thursday night when they lost in Cleveland?

A win today in Miami would provide Steelers fans with an entertaining and suspense-filled NFL Sunday.

Sure, this has been a disappointing season. But historically, the 2009 Steelers already have given us more than the 1998 Steelers, who started 7-4 but ended the season with five straight losses. At least this season there's been an attempted rescue after the disaster.

By winning Sunday and still having a chance to make the playoffs when they go home, these Steelers officially will be awarded a better place in our memory than the 2006 Steelers, who as defending champions were eliminated from playoff contention by Week 17 but still won in Cincinnati to keep the Bengals out of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, Marvin Lewis might remember that.

With all the talk of what has to happen for the Steelers to make the playoffs, I think we've forgotten about what has to happen for the Steelers to beat the Dolphins.

The bad news is that Troy Polamalu, while listed as questionable, is not likely to play. If the Steelers somehow get into the playoffs (and let's face it, the odds are against that), it's more likely he'll be ready then.

The good news is the Steelers probably won't have to deal with the wildcat with Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown out for the season. The wildcat made the Steelers defense look like a bunch of Sunday-morning rec leaguers against the Browns.

What's also good news for the Steelers is the Dolphins' secondary might actually be worse than the Steelers' secondary. So look for the Steelers to remain pass-happy.

All the Steelers can do is win and hope. The rest is out of their control.

December 28, 2009

A little help from my enemies

By Mike Batista

The AFC playoffs are like a treehouse with a sign that reads: Steelers Keep Out.

The Patriots and Bengals don't want to hang out with the Steelers, because their parents told them they're nothing but trouble.

The Steelers need to beat the Dolphins Sunday in Miami, then get help from the Patriots or Bengals, and possibly both, to make the playoffs. I don't think the Patriots and Bengals want to help the Steelers.

Since everyone's talking about the Colts. I guess I should too for a second.

Sure, the Colts lack balls by ditching their pursuit of perfection, resting their starters and losing to the Jets. That kept the Jets alive and hurt the Steelers' chances of making the playoffs. But if the Steelers are cleaning out their lockers a week from today, they can't blame Jim Caldwell. How about not losing five in a row?

The 14-1 Colts have bigger concerns than the barely-above-.500 Steelers. The Steelers might be a little more on the minds of the Patriots and Bengals. I think they'd rather see the Jets or Texans in the playoffs than the Steelers. Those two rings on Ben Roethlisberger's fingers are a lot scarier than Rex Ryan's big mouth.

The Patriots can clinch the No. 3 seed in the AFC with a win at Houston Sunday. The Bengals can clinch the No. 3 seed with a win at the Jets Sunday night and a Patriots loss.

But do either of these teams want the No. 3 seed? Not only would that likely entail a date with the Steelers in the wild-card round of the playoffs, but a potential trip to San Diego in the divisional round.

The Chargers look like a tougher out than the Colts right now. They're 12-3 and have won 10 straight. When the Colts host their first playoff game the weekend of Jan. 16-17, they'll have gone a full month without really trying to win. Can you say rusty? I knew you could.

If you're still reading my column at this point, let me show my gratitude by clearly spelling out what needs to happen for the Steelers to make the playoffs. Then I will continue rambling.

The Steelers must beat the Dolphins Sunday in Miami AND one of the following three scenarios must unfold.

1) The Patriots must beat or tie the Texans in Houston AND The Bengals must beat or tie the Jets at the Meadowlands.

2) The Patriots must beat or tie the Texans in Houston AND The Raiders must beat or tie the Ravens in Oakland.

3) The Bengals must beat or tie the Jets at the Meadowlands AND the Raiders must beat or tie the Ravens in Oakland AND the Chiefs must beat or tie the Broncos in Denver.

The first scenario seems like the easiest for the Steelers, even though the Patriots and Bengals could both lay down to get that coveted No. 4 seed.

Just to prove that I'm not a lonely voice in the wilderness, Butch Stearns of WEEI in Boston last night talked about the Patriots laying down in Week 17 to avoid playing the Steelers in 2005.

They settled for the No. 4 seed and crushed Jacksonville in the first round while the Steelers beat the Bengals and went on to win the Super Bowl.

If the starters for both the Patriots and Bengals are getting manicures and pedicures on the sidelines Sunday, the Steelers better hope at least one of those teams has some damn good backups.

And let's not forget one thing. The Dolphins still have a lottery-like chance of making the playoffs. So they'll have something to play for Sunday.

I don't think Joey Porter wants to see the Steelers in the playoffs either.

December 27, 2009

Help wanted

Steelers 23, Ravens 20

By Mike Batista

I guess starting Deshea Townsend at cornerback was the answer for the Steelers after all.

In Sunday's win over the Ravens at Heinz Field, Townsend unveiled a new technique for covering receivers: Get beat so bad they can't believe how open they are. Then they're so shocked they drop the ball.

The strategy worked to perfection on the first play of the fourth quarter. With the score tied 20-20, the Duquesne Incline railway car could have fit through the space between Townsend and Ravens' receiver Derrick Mason in the end zone. But Mason couldn't hang onto Joe Flacco's pass from the Steelers' 21.

For once, a Steelers opponent literally had the victory in their hands but couldn't hold on.

Dropped touchdown passes by Limas Sweed and Santonio Holmes, and a dropped interception by Joe Burnett, are the difference between 8-7 and 11-4 for the Steelers this season.

The Steelers got one of those back on Sunday. Had Mason supplied the Ravens with six points by holding onto the ball, Jeff Reed's three points on his 38-yard field goal with 5:30 left in the game would not have been enough for the Steelers.

Simple mathematics.

What's not so simple is the mathematics needed to figure out how the Steelers get into the playoffs.

As of press time, I'm not able to completely define the Steelers' playoff scenario. But I can say that the Jets' win over the Colts was not a good thing for the Steelers. The Steelers finish the regular season Sunday at Miami, and I don't think a Steelers win alone will get them into the playoffs. It looks like next week they'll not only be going to the Patriots again with hat in hand (they need them to win at Houston) but also the Bengals (at the Jets).

The Eagles' win over the Broncos helps, though.

Having won two straight after losing five in a row, the Steelers are in the same position as a husband who walks out on his wife, then after five weeks comes home and begs her to take him back. Really, it's over between me and my receptionist. And the housekeeper. And the babysitter.

The wife's answer? We'll see.

Indeed, we'll see. Even if the Steelers win Sunday, their playoff fate is not their decision.

Give it away, give it away, give it away now

The Ravens (8-7) did everything they could to give the Steelers this game in the first half.

The Steelers finally held onto an interception, but couldn't hold onto a pass from their own quarterback.

James Farrior grabbed a Joe Flacco pass tipped by LaMarr Woodley (that would be a "splash" play, right Mike Tomlin?) and returned it to the Ravens' 8. Mendenhall dropped a pass that would have at least put him close to the goal line. The Steelers eventually settled for three points to open the scoring.

The Steelers settled for three, and a 6-3 lead, again after Stefan Logan returned a kickoff 49 yards to the Ravens' 47. This drive was hampered by one of the Ravens' four sacks.

Ben Roethlisberger's been sacked 47 times this season. If he breaks Cliff Stoudt's team record of 51 next week in Miami, will they stop the game for a ceremony in which Stoudt drives onto the field with a truck full of Tylenol?

The Steelers' first touchdown was set up by a shanked Sam Koch punt, which gave the Steelers possession at the Ravens' 43. Mendenhall finished the job with a 4-yard touchdown run and a 13-3 Steelers lead early in the second quarter.

It was Mendenhall's only moment of usefulness in the game. He ran the ball 17 times for 36 yards and caught one ball for four yards. Meanwhile, Ravens' running back Ray Rice hung 141 rushing yards on the Steelers' defense, the first back to gain 100 yards on the Steelers in 32 games.

After the Steelers lost to the Ravens last month, I noted that the Ravens chose Rice two picks after the Steelers chose Limas Sweed in the second round of the 2008 draft. Hell, the Steelers missed the boat twice on Rice. At the moment, it looks like Rice would have been a better pick than Mendenhall in the first round.

Boy, for a column on a Steelers' win keeping them alive in the playoff race, during the holiday season no less, this is getting awfully nasty. I have to stop thinking about the offensive line and Mendenhall and think about something nice.

How about Mike Wallace?

Well received

As I said last week, Wallace had an impact when the Steelers won in Denver. Then he was all but invisible for five games, and the Steelers lost them all.

Wallace might not be in every highlight reel in America like he was last week, but he again made a difference Sunday, catching three passes for 83 yards.

More than half of those yards came on third-and-12 from the Steelers' 4 with just over a minute left in the first half. It looked like the Steelers' attempt to get points before the half was dead in the water when Roethlisberger recognized the Ravens were offsides and he had a free play. He fired a 45-yard completion to Wallace.

Heath Miller and Hines Ward followed with receptions to set up Santonio Holmes' 24-yard touchdown catch, which gave the Steelers' a 20-10 halftime lead.

Considering how banged up the unit was, it wasn't a bad day for the Steelers' receivers. Santonio Holmes caught five passes for 86 yards. Hines Ward caught four for 37 on a bad hamstring. Even undrafted rookie Tyler Grisham caught a crucial 14-yard pass on third down on the Steelers' game-winning drive (yes, a drop later in the drive forced the Steelers to settle for the field goal).

Joey Galloway? He was inactive.

I'll melt with you

One thing we learned from this game is that it's much better for the Steelers' defense to melt down in the third quarter than the fourth quarter.

The Steelers' 10-point lead was gone less than nine minutes into the third quarter on Todd Heap's seven-yard touchdown catch, his second TD of the game, and Billy Cundiff's 35-yard field goal.

The Steelers' defense finally buckled down once it blew the lead.

Woodley and rookie defensive tackle Ziggy Hood plopped their 565 combined pounds into the pool and made a few more splash plays in the fourth quarter. Hood recorded his first NFL sack to force the Ravens to punt from their own 29 and set up the Steelers' deciding drive.

After Reed's field goal, the Ravens moved the ball to the fringes of field-goal range, the Steelers' 35, with 2:39 left. Then Woodley sacked Flacco on two consecutive plays. The second forced a fumble, which Hood picked up.

The Steelers took over on their 42 with 2:27 remaining, but just like they did in the AFC championship game last season, the Ravens did their best Glenn Close-Isn't-Really-Dead-Yet from "Fatal Attraction."

Tom Zbikowski intercepted Roethlisberger and returned it 38 yards to the Steelers' 42 with still 101 seconds to play. The pick was negated, however, by an illegal contact penalty on Frank Walker.

As much as Ravens' coach John Harbaugh pissed and moaned about the call, it looked like Walker had Wallace locked in a passionate embrace. It was nothing short of man love.

Game over.

Speaking of man love, how's your knee, Troy?

Still twitching

Steelers 37, Packers 36

By Mike Batista

I hate when I'm not as excited about something as I should be.

When Mike Wallace caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger Sunday to tie the Packers 36-36, I raised my arms and cheered. But I didn't leave my feet.

I was very tame, at least compared to the way I reacted to some of those "Oh-My-God-I-Can't-Believe-The-Steelers-Did-It-Again" moments of last season.

Maybe it was because I didn't really believe Wallace got his feet inbounds. Even the official raised his arms slowly as if he was trying to make up a signal that looked like both "touchdown" and "incomplete pass." Sort of like a letter that looks like both "T" and "F" on a True-and-False test.

Perhaps another reason I didn't shriek like a 12-year-old girl is because I was in a little corner of the restaurant at Bob Hyland's Sports Page watching the only TV that didn't have a three-second delay. I saw the touchdown before anyone else, so my cheering wasn't in sync with the crowd.

I think the real reason I didn't go airborne when Wallace made the catch as time expired is because the excitement of that moment wasn't enough to outweigh how pissed I was at the Steelers for letting the game, and their season, get to that point.

Faith no more

The Steelers led 24-14 in the third quarter, but then the offense settled for field goals instead of touchdowns and the defense broke down in the fourth quarter, a story line as predictable as a "Honeymooners" episode – until a shocking plot twist sprang from the mind of Mike Tomlin.

With 3:58 remaining, the Steelers took a 30-28 lead on a 43-yard Jeff Reed field goal. Then came an onside kick. Ike Taylor recovered it, but he was penalized because he touched the ball before it went 10 yards.

First of all, what the hell is Taylor doing on the "hands" team? Second, the only time he ever successfully grasps the ball, it turns out to be illegal. That's the kind of season it's been for the Steelers.

Tomlin showed no faith in the ability of his defense to keep the Packers out of field goal range, so he took a gamble and it backfired. Or did it?

The coach's slight didn't seem to light any kind of fire under the haunches of the Steelers defenders. The Packers got the ball on the Steelers 39. All they needed was a field goal, but they got a touchdown when Aaron Rodgers threw a 24-yard TD pass to James Jones. The two-point conversion gave the Packers a 36-30 lead with 2:12 left.

Tomlin has not had a great season as an administrator. He admitted he didn't have the team prepared for the Chiefs game. He didn't properly manage locker room communication during the Roethlisberger concussion fiasco and he didn't carry out threats to yank players from starting jobs.

On Sunday, however, there was a method to Tomlin's madness as a tactician.

Like a chess player seeing 10 moves ahead, Tomlin probably figured that as long as the defense isn't going to stop the Packers, why not try an onside kick and either get the ball back or help the Packers score quicker, which would leave enough time on the clock for the Steelers to mount a game-winning drive.

The Steelers did just that. But it wasn't neat and organized like the game-winning drives of yore (by yore I mean 2008).

Rusty Wallace

This was like watching a groom scratch his nuts on his way down the aisle.

On this march to glory, Roethlisberger was sacked for the fifth time in the game (he's been sacked 43 times this season, four short of his career high of 47 in 2007).

Max Starks, who as the left tackle is supposed to be the best offensive lineman, was penalized twice during the drive, once for holding and once for a false start.

Roethlisberger was intercepted with 59 seconds left, but the pick was nullified by a penalty.

The Steelers spent their last timeout after getting to the Packers 19 with 18 seconds left. Then No. 17, Wallace, let a Roethlisberger pass go through his hands.

Perhaps the hero-to-be knew what he was doing. He was short of the goal line. Had he caught the ball, the Steelers would have needed to spike the ball to stop the clock and had just one more play.

The Steelers had two more plays. On the second one, with zeroes on the clock, Roethlisberger found Wallace at the edge of the end zone. He caught the ball and kept his feet inbounds, sort of like a community-theatre version of Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl.

It was Wallace's second catch. The first had almost as much of an impact. Just 42 seconds into the game, on the Steelers' first play from scrimmage, Roethlisberger hit him for a 60-yard touchdown to make it 7-0.

The suits on NBC and ESPN are just starting with the Mike Wallace-60 Minutes lines that I've been using for weeks. So I'll stay a step ahead of them and make an astute observation about him.

Wallace started the season on a rookie-of-the-year trajectory. He caught 25 passes in the first eight games, but just nine in the last six. The last game in which he made this much of a splash was the Steelers' Monday-night win in Denver, when he caught four passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. Then Wallace wasn't a factor for five games, and the Steelers lost all of them. Hmmm.

Making history

Wallace caught 79 of the 503 yards Roethlisberger rang up on Sunday. It was a franchise record for passing yards and the most prolific passing day in the NFL since Drew Brees threw for 510 in a loss to the Bengals on Nov. 19, 2006.

A week earlier, Brees and the Saints lost to the Steelers in a 38-31 shootout at Heinz Field.

That game shared the distinction as the highest scoring in the history of Heinz Field – until Sunday.

Reed's extra point not only created the first 37-36 final score in NFL history, it saved the franchise from the indignity of being the first defending champion to lose six straight.

Still, the Steelers' chances of making the playoffs are like a patient on life support, and this win is like the eye twitch family members swear that they see.

I won't get into the minute details of the Steelers' situation. This column is already too long (if you got this far, then you probably like this site enough to become a fan on Facebook).

All I'll say is the Steelers could win their last two games and still not make the playoffs.

However, if they win Sunday at home against the Ravens, their playoff chances will remain alive going into the final week of the regular season.

Didn't Troy Polamalu say something about trying to come back for the Miami game?

If the Steelers beat the Ravens, and Polamalu plays at Miami, maybe then I'll get excited.

December 13, 2009
The 12 Days of Christmas (Steelers remix)

On the first day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
A Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the second day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the third day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the fourth day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
Four Months of Mock Drafts,
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the fifth day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
Five Late-Game Chokes,
Four Months of Mock Drafts,
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the sixth day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
Six Rings and That's It,
Five Late-Game Chokes,
Four Months of Mock Drafts,
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the seventh day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
Seven Return Touchdowns,
Six Rings and That's It,
Five Late-Game Chokes,
Four Months of Mock Drafts,
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the eighth day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us,
Eight Sacks in Cleveland,
Seven Return Touchdowns,
Six Rings and That's It,
Five Late-Game Chokes,
Four Months of Mock Drafts,
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the ninth day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
Nine Rashard Dance Moves,
Eight Sacks in Cleveland,
Seven Return Touchdowns,
Six Rings and That's It,
Five Late-Game Chokes,
Four Months of Mock Drafts,
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns
On the tenth day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
Ten Losses Maybe,
Nine Rashard Dance Moves,
Eight Sacks in Cleveland,
Seven Return Touchdowns,
Six Rings and That's It,
Five Late-Game Chokes,
Four Months of Mock Drafts,
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us:
Eleven Duds on Defense,
Ten Losses Maybe,
Nine Rashard Dance Moves,
Eight Sacks in Cleveland,
Seven Return Touchdowns,
Six Rings and That's It,
Five Late-Game Chokes,
Four Months of Mock Drafts,
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
the Steelers gave to us,
Twelve Fans at Heinz Field,
Eleven Duds on Defense,
Ten Losses Maybe,
Nine Rashard Dance Moves,
Eight Sacks in Cleveland,
Seven Return Touchdowns,
Six Rings and That's It,
Five Late-Game Chokes,
Four Months of Mock Drafts,
Three Pointless Games,
Two Feuding Players
and a Loss to the Crappy Browns

Lyrics by me, Mike Batista

December 11, 2009
Misery in good company

Browns 13, Steelers 6

By Mike Batista

The Steelers have sunk to a low not seen since Ben Roethlisberger was at Miami of Ohio and Troy Polamalu came off the bench.

They lost to the Browns, and they've lost five in a row. Neither has happened since 2003. And while they're not mathematically out of the playoffs, my math isn't good enough to figure out how they can make the playoffs.

Were it not for the emotional lift provided by my photo opportunity with Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, I might have slashed my wrists with a broken beer bottle, and this Web site that has touched so many lives (just humor me and tell me it has) would have died with me.

And I thought a picture of me holding a bottle of Iron City would be my photo of the night.

IC is one of the many Pittsburgh amenities at Hibernia, a bar in Manhattan that's full of Steelers memorabilia and even plays the "Steelers Polka."

It was at Hibernia on Thursday night that Pittsburgh's top elected official was just another Steelers fan suffering through this disgraceful defeat. Ravenstahl just happened to be in the New York outpost of Steelers Nation because he and many of his fellow Pennsylvania politicians are attending The Pennsylvania Society's annual Holiday Dinner Saturday at the Waldorf-Astoria.

That's assuming this loss doesn't trigger a state of emergency in Pittsburgh and force Ravenstahl to rush back.

Empty words

Before I get into what happened on the field, let me first express my annoyance with what was said in the broadcast booth.

I can understand NFL Network play-by-play man Bob Papa referring to the Steelers as "defending Super Bowl champions" once or twice early in the game, because technically they are. But Papa used the term "defending Super Bowl champions" so many times he sounded like Rain Man.

The Steelers haven't played like champions since they were in Denver. Calling them "defending Super Bowl champions" is sort of like calling Tiger Woods a husband.

Now let's get down to field level and talk about the coaching.

Despite Mike Tomlin's threats to demote some starters, the Steelers' starting lineup was unchanged. The names scrolling across the TV screen at the beginning of the game were all too familiar. Ike Taylor. William Gay. Ryan Clark. Lawrence Timmons.

Rookie cornerback Joe Burnett saw some action. But Keenan Lewis, another rookie cornerback, didn't even dress for the game.

The Steelers are going to need to take a long, hard look at Burnett and Lewis before the end of the season in order to assess their need for a cornerback in the draft.

It's December and I'm talking about the draft. Nice, huh?

Tomlin didn't have the stones to shuffle the lineup like he said he would. That's poor leadership, and the Steelers were a reflection of their coach on Thursday.

Stuffed by sacks

This is a team that has been tormented by ham and eggers during this five-game skid. Hank Poteat and Chris Jennings took their place in that pantheon with the likes of Andy Studebaker and Bruce Gradkowski.

Poteat, a former Steelers cornerback, had the third sack of his 11-year career. Poteat taking down Roethlisberger is like a Mini Cooper cutting off a Hummer in traffic. It looks funny.

Poteat's sack was just one of eight by the Browns' defense. The Steelers couldn't sustain any drives with Roethlisberger being sacked on seven of their 10 possessions. I don't care how long Roethlisberger holds the ball, something is wrong with the offensive line when the quarterback is sacked eight times.

It probably doesn't help that the Steelers haven't been much of a threat to run the ball. I'm tired of Rashard Mendenhall doing more spinning than a DJ.

Mendenhall had just 53 yards on 16 carries. He also had a costly dropped pass on third down with the Steelers trailing 13-6 in the fourth quarter. With less than 12 minutes left, Mendenhall was at the Browns' 40. He needed to get to the 26 for the first down, but there was no one near him. He might have had a shot had he held onto the ball.

Why can't Mendenhall be more like Jennings?

A rookie running back who started the year on the Browns' practice squad, Jennings came out of nowhere and fueled the game's only touchdown drive, shredding the Steelers' defense for 28 yards on four carries late in the second quarter, culminating in his 10-yard touchdown run that gave the Browns a 13-0 lead.

And what would a Steelers-Browns game be without Joshua Cribbs making the Steelers look like a bunch of hung over Sunday morning rec league players?

Cribbs is always good for a big return on special teams against the Steelers, and these big returns always seem to come after he muffs the ball. It happened again in the first quarter Thursday. He dropped a Dan Sepulveda punt, but picked it up and ran 55 yards to the Steelers' 8, setting up a field goal and a 3-0 Browns lead.

Cribbs took the Steelers' defense apart out of the wildcat, gaining 87 yards on eight carries. His longest run of 37 yards got the ball to the Steelers' 30 during that touchdown drive.

The Browns ran for 171 yards, their biggest output against the Steelers since 1972. The Browns also are the first team to lead the Steelers by more than seven points this season and the first team to beat them by more than six.

That's right. The lowly Browns (2-11) beat the Steelers (6-7) more soundly than any team this season except maybe the Bengals.

Crunching the numbers

After falling behind 13-0, the Steelers got a field goal at the end of the first half then another one late in the third quarter to pull within seven.

The Steelers got the ball at their 21 with 6:16 to go in the game. Those game-tying or game-winning drives in the fourth quarter had a way of coming together last season.

It looked like maybe the Steelers had something going with a first-and-10 at the Browns 43 with 2:40 left, but Roethlisberger was sacked for a nine-yard loss, the drive petered out, and this title defense officially became more feeble than the one in 2006.

The 2006 Steelers never lost five straight. They never even lost four straight.

And they didn't lose to the Browns.

The 2009 Steelers became the first, um, defending Super Bowl champion to lose to a team at least 10 games under .500 since the 1997 Packers, who lost to the 0-10 Colts.

That Packers team, however, got back to the Super Bowl that season. The loss to the Colts was merely a fluke.

For the Steelers, the unfortunate reality is that losing to a one-win team is no fluke.

December 10, 2009
'Burgh Durham

The Steelers' situation has inspired me to invoke my favorite movie scene of all-time, a drunk Crash Davis talking about the difference between hitting .250 and .300 in "Bull Durham":

"Twenty-five hits a year in 500 at-bats is 50 points. Okay? There's six months in a season, that's about 25 weeks -- you get one extra flare a week -- just one -- a gork, a ground ball with eyes!, a dying quail -- just one more dying quail a week and you're in Yankee Stadium."

Instead of the difference between .250 and .300, I'm talking about the difference between 6-6 and 9-3. The season's gone about three months. If the Steelers had been able to hang onto three balls, just three more caught balls a month, they're fighting for a first-round playoff bye.

If Santonio Holmes catches that touchdown pass in Chicago, if Limas Sweed catches that touchdown pass in Cincinnati, if Joe Burnett catches that interception Sunday in Pittsburgh, nobody would be asking what's wrong with the Steelers.

Of course, those dropped balls wouldn't loom so large if Jeff Reed hadn't missed two field goals in the fourth quarter in Chicago, if the Steelers hadn't let the Bengals off the hook on fourth-and-10, if someone in a black jersey had been able to knock down that, well that dying quail that landed in the hands of Louis Murphy on Sunday.

As Bill Parcells once said, you are what you are. And right now, the Steelers are a .500 football team that needs to win the rest of its games and get some help to make the playoffs.

The Steelers can't think about winning four football games right now. They have to think about winning one and getting back to basics. For the Steelers, the basics is beating the Cleveland Browns.

The Steelers have defeated the Browns 12 straight times and have won eight straight in Cleveland. Ben Roethlisberger is 10-0 in his career against the Browns.

If the Steelers can salvage one thing from this season, it's their dominance of the Browns. Right now, that's all they got.

December 6, 2009

Big Bruce

Raiders 27, Steelers 24

By Mike Batista

The Steelers should have known better.

After the two-minute warning, they should have run the ball a couple more times to milk the clock, then scored the touchdown.

Instead, Ben Roethlisberger threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward to give the Steelers a 24-20 lead with 1:56 left.

Don't the Steelers know that 1:56 is an eternity for a quarterback like Bruce Gradkowski? We're talking about Air Gradkowski!

Protecting a four-point lead was futile for the Steelers' defense against a quarterback with such a long, distinguished career (actually, the Raiders are Gradkowski's fourth team in four years).

The Pittsburgh-born Gradkowski always rises to the occasion at Heinz Field (in his two previous games at Heinz, he threw five interceptions with no touchdowns. With the Browns last season, his passer rating in Pittsburgh was 1.0).

Gradkowski is the next great quarterback from Western Pennsylvania. Right up there with Unitas, Montana, Marino and Namath.

OK, maybe not. But the Steelers sure made it look that way.

Gradkowski went 88 yards in 99 seconds, throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy with nine seconds left to give the Raiders a 27-24 lead.

The Steelers got close enough for Roethlisberger to heave a Hail Mary as the clock ran out. Limas Sweed was the only Steelers receiver with a chance to catch the ball before it was batted down.

When Limas Sweed is your only hope, you're fucked.

Not catching on

As if losing to the Raiders (4-8) wasn't bad enough, the Steelers (6-6) lost to a West Coast team playing at 1 p.m. on the East Coast.

Even good West Coast teams have struggled in that situation in recent years.

This is without a doubt the Steelers' most infamous home defeat since their loss to the Houston Texas in 2002.

While this loss is certainly stunning, I don't think the shock factor is quite as high as it was in that loss to the Texans. The 2002 Steelers were clearly a playoff-caliber team, and they dominated the Texans that day but lost because of three return touchdowns.

This Steelers team, which has lost four straight, doesn't look like it can dominate anybody. Not even the Cleveland Browns, who they visit Thursday.

Things might be different if Troy Polamalu were playing. The Steelers can beat anybody with Polamalu, but without him, they can lose to anybody, including the Browns.

Without Polamalu, the Steelers secondary is awful. On the Raiders' winning drive, rookie cornerback Joe Burnett showed he's learned what it means to be a true Steeler by dropping an interception. It was right in his bread basket. Carol Burnett could have caught that ball.

You just can't give a quarterback like Bruce Gradkowski a second chance like that. I mean, he's so great that when people think Bruce, they think Gradkowski (or is it Springsteen?).

The Steelers secondary couldn't catch or cover in crunch time. On second-and-10 from the Steelers' 40, Gradkowski threw a ball that wobbled worse than the town drunk. But somehow Murphy came down with it at the Steelers 17 with 27 seconds left.

I wish I could say that my funny feeling the Steelers could lose this game started only at that point. But it actually started a little more than a minute into the game.

Kicking themselves

After losing three straight, it looked like the Steelers were finally out of their doldrums when Stefan Logan returned the opening kickoff 83 yards to the Raiders' 19. He didn't get that touchdown we've all been waiting for, but hey, he got the Steelers into the red zone.

And all they got out of it was three points.

The ensuing kickoff went to old friend Gary Russell, who returned kicks last year for the Steelers. What I liked about Russell was that even though he was never going to break free on a kick return, he always got it past the 20.

Russell got this one to the 42. I think if anyone except Russell was returning this kick against the Steelers' suspect kick coverage, it would have been a touchdown.

Later in the first quarter, with the score tied 3-3, Rashard Mendenhall ran 60 yards to the Raiders' 14 (take that one away, and he ran 19 times for 43 yards). But the Steelers got no points out of it because Roethlisberger got stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the 5.

Hey, at least the offensive line allowed just one sack. Problem was, it was a sack that yanked the Steelers out of field goal range with them clinging to a 10-6 lead at the end of the third quarter.

But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin decided to go for the 53-yard field goal anyway. Jeff Reed missed, giving the Raiders the ball on their 43.

Back and forth

Gradkowski, the King of the Fourth Quarter Comeback (you can count them on one hand), then engineered an 11-play drive, culminating in a 17-yard touchdown pass to Chaz Schilens (another household name) to give the Raiders a 13-10 lead.

The Steelers countered quickly with a 37-yard return by Logan, a 57-yard completion from Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes and a three-yard TD run by Mendenhall, making it 17-13 with 7:13 to play.

The Raiders took the lead back when Gradkowski burned Ike Taylor (the Steelers' safeties were apparently lined up in Coraopolis) for a 75-yard TD pass to Murphy, making it 20-17 with 5:28 left.

Then it was the Steelers' turn. Roethlisberger took them 80 yards on seven plays, finishing with the 11-yard touchdown pass to Ward with 1:56 left.

Roethlisberger completed 18 of 24 passes for 278 yards. Almost half of those yards (134) came in the fourth quarter, when he completed 6 of 7 passes (the Hail Mary was his only incompletion).

Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense were in championship form in the fourth quarter. The problem, as it has been the entire season, was the defense.

The bad news is the Steelers have to win their remaining four games and get some help to make the playoffs.

The good news is they won't have to face Gradkowski again.

December 5, 2009

The straight poop

Having lost three straight games, the Steelers need a win any way they can get it.

They should live by the mantra from the glory days of Sunday's opponent.

Just win baby.

The Raiders haven't been doing much of that lately. So a more likely utterance from owner Al Davis, who turned 80 on July 4, would be "Oops, I crapped my pants."

What used to be a Commitment to Excellence is now a Commitment to Excrement.

Too close for comfort

OK, now that I have my scatological satire out of the way, let's take a look at why the Steelers are in their current predicament.

It comes down to winning close games. The Steelers are 1-5 this season in games decided by seven points or less. None of their losses this season have been by more than six points. Last season they were 6-2, not counting the Super Bowl, in games decided by seven points or less.

You could say that the Steelers would be 9-2 instead of 6-5 if Santonio Holmes can hold onto touchdown passes in two losses and if Limas Sweed can hold onto a touchdown pass in another loss.

But you also could say that the Steelers would be 9-7 instead of 12-4 last season if a single play went the other way in any three of their narrow wins.

Parity is one of the reasons the NFL is the most successful pro sports league in the history of civilization. The talent discrepancy between the best and worst NFL teams is less than that of the best and worst teams in Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL. It helps make the league less predictable than other leagues.

But parity can be a fickle thing. It treated the Steelers very well last year. This year, not so much.

But the year isn't over yet.

Born in the 'Burgh

Pittsburgh-born Bruce Gradkowski will start at quarterback for the Raiders, making his third start with three different teams at Heinz Field.

Gradkowski has completed 25 of 50 passes with no touchdowns and five interceptions in his two previous starts at Heinz with the Buccaneers and Browns, both Steelers wins.

This season, Gradkowski has started two games (Raiders are 1-1 in those games) and is 52 for 99 for 546 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.

November 30, 2009

Don't blame Dixon

Ravens 20, Steelers 17, OT

By Mike Batista

When Steelers coach Mike Tomlin hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in February, he proclaimed that Steelers football is 60 minutes.

Ah, so that's the Steelers' problem. They can't win when the game goes longer than 60 minutes.

With the Steelers' second consecutive overtime loss, Tomlin is now dealing with the first three-game losing streak of his head coaching career.

Dennis Dixon went 60 minutes without throwing an interception Sunday. Unfortunately, he saved his worst for last.

It was quite an alliterative situation for the Steelers. Dennis Dixon making his starting debut on a night when the defense at times looked like it did in 2008.

One "D" word that didn't apply was "disaster." By that I mean that Dixon's start at quarterback wasn't the disaster we all feared it would be. While his flaws were apparent, Dixon put the Steelers in a position to win ... until the game was in its 65th minute.

On third-and-5 from the 50, Dixon was picked off by Ravens' rookie Paul Kruger, who returned it to the Steelers' 28. Billy Cundiff eventually kicked a 29-yard field goal to put the Steelers out of their misery.

Now that night in February might as well be the stuff of grainy old photos stuffed in a shoebox, because the Steelers are in a position from which only three teams have reached the Super Bowl.

Only the 1979 Rams, the 1988 49ers and the 2001 Patriots have reached the Super Bowl after having a record of 6-5 or worse during the season.

With the Ravens and Jaguars joining the Steelers at 6-5, the AFC playoff picture is murkier than a Manny Ramirez urine sample.

When the graphic is shown on TV, the Steelers now occupy the dreaded "In The Hunt" column.

If the Steelers and their coaching staff were just a little bit smarter Sunday, they might be in the "Wild Card" column this morning, with Denver at 7-4.

Dixon threw a touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes but completed just 12 of his 26 passes for 145 yards. At this early stage in his career, his legs are more dangerous than his arm. He had a 31-yard scramble called back because of a holding penalty in the first quarter. It was too bad, because that run put the Steelers in field goal range.

In the fourth quarter, Dixon's 24-yard touchdown run was flag-free, giving the Steelers a 17-14 lead with 6:32 left.

With Dixon's running ability in mind, would it have killed the Steelers to try a little wildcat? It might be a gimmick, but when you have to start a guy who has thrown just one NFL pass against a defense as nasty as the Ravens', why not try everything?

Of course, the Steelers' most unforgivable sin on Sunday was letting the Ravens off the hook on fourth-and-5 from their own 46 with 3:31 left. Dixon got them the lead, and they pissed it away by allowing Ray Rice to run free for a 44-yard reception that set up the game-tying field goal.

The only reason I didn't try to hang myself with my Terrible Towel after that play is because I kind of knew the game was going into overtime.

You see, I wasn't able to see the game live, so I watched it on NFL Game Rewind. Midway through the fourth quarter, there was still 40 minutes left in the 2 hour, 6 minute broadcast. So I figured either the game was going into OT or, this being a Steelers-Ravens slugfest, someone got hurt and had to be carted off on a stretcher.

The Steelers' defense was burned by Rice just when it seemed like it finally learned how to make an impact without Troy Polamalu.

Joe Flacco was sacked five times, twice by Lawrence Timmons, and the Steelers recovered two fumbles.

The defense wasn't the only unit that made strides. The Steelers didn't allow a touchdown on special teams, helping to end their NFL-record streak of eight straight games in which they allowed a return touchdown. And the offensive line didn't allow a sack for the first time this season.

Despite all that progress, the Steelers weren't good enough to beat the Ravens Sunday.

Now if they're not good enough to beat the Raiders at home next Sunday, then Steelers football in 2009 won't be 60 minutes, it will be 16 games.

Cold November pain

Chiefs 27, Steelers 24, OT

By Mike Batista

What is it about late November that makes the Steelers lose on the road to shitty teams in overtime?

To wit:

Date Score Opponent Opponent's record entering game Opponent's final record Steelers' record entering game What became of season

Nov. 26, 1998 19-16 Lions 4-7 5-11 7-4 7-9, missed playoffs

Nov. 20, 2005 16-13 Ravens 2-7 6-10 7-2 11-5, won Super Bowl XL

Nov. 18, 2007 19-16 Jets 1-8 4-12 7-2 10-6, lost wild card

Nov. 22, 2009 27-24 Chiefs 2-7 ?-?? 6-3 ??????

Before you tell me that what happened in 1998, 2005 and 2007 is irrelevant, let me introduce you to Mr. Irrelevant.

Ryan Succop, so dubbed because he was the last player chosen in the 2009 draft, kicked the game-winning, 22-yard field goal to beat the Steelers in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium.

"Succop" is pronounced "suck up," which rhymes with "fuck up," which is what the Steelers did in losing this game.

The Steelers received a little amnesty when the Bengals also failed to beat their weak-ass AFC West opponent, the Raiders. The Steelers remain a game behind Cincinnati in the AFC North.

But I'm not here to rip the Bengals. I'm here to rip the Steelers. I've been doing that a lot lately.

Only a memory

Among the many inexcusable things the Steelers did to lose this game was blow a fourth-quarter lead, even if they took that lead in a fashion that evoked joyful memories of a certain evening in Foxborough, Mass., last season.

Early in the fourth, Lawrence Timmons strip-sacked Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel. James Harrison recovered the fumble at the Chiefs' 27. Ben Roethlisberger eventually threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Rashard Mendenhall for a 24-17 Steelers lead with 8:40 left.

Last season, Cassel threw two interceptions and fumbled twice in the second half, helping the Steelers beat the Patriots and become a championship-caliber team.

Alas, this isn't last season. The Steelers have lost two straight for the second time. They didn't lose two straight at all last season.

Renovated Cassel

The Steelers still had a firm grip on this game when with 7:37 left Cassel faced a third-and-9 at the Chiefs' 10 and had to burn a timeout and talk to his coach, Todd Haley. Dick Haley, Todd's father, was the Steelers' player personnel director in the 1970s.

Let's just say it must have been an effective timeout. In the eyes of Steelers fans, it turned Cassel from bed wetter to baby-faced assassin.

With Troy Polamalu on the sideline wearing a hat that made him look like an 8-year-old waiting for a school bus, the Chiefs gouged the Steelers' defense for 77 yards on the next two plays.

First, Cassel threw to Lance Long for 30 yards then to Chris Chambers for 47 yards, putting the ball on the Steelers' 13. Cassel tied the game 24-24 by hitting Jamaal Charles for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 4:58 left.

Unlike so many times last season, the Steelers couldn't keep the ball, work the clock and position themselves for the winning points. One of the culprits was the offensive line, which after not allowing a sack for 55 minutes picked the perfect time to start sucking.

Roethlisberger was brought down for a 13-yard loss to scuttle their ensuing drive. The Steelers got the ball back one more time in regulation, but another sack stalled that possession.

The O-Line couldn't even protect Roethlisberger when it cheated. Justin Hartwig was holding when the most costly of the three sacks occurred.

Derrick Johnson's knee introduced itself to Roethlisberger's head, knocking him out of the game with concussion-like symptoms. He said he felt "okay" after the game and I'm hearing he's probable for next Sunday's game at Baltimore.

Charlie Batch replaced Roethlisberger and got the Steelers to the fringe of field-goal range at the 35, but even Mewelde "the chain mover" Moore let the Steelers down on this day. He lost three yards on third down, forcing the Steelers to punt.

Cassel then connected with Chambers for 61 yards to set up Mr. Irrelevant's game-winning field goal.

Same shit, different week

As stunning as the game's final result was, what happened at the beginning of the game was no surprise. And that's unfortunate.

Charles ran the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, the fourth kickoff return for a TD the Steelers have allowed in the past five games.

Allowing a touchdown on a kickoff has become as much a part of Steelers games as the couch gag during the opening credits of "The Simpsons."

The Steelers have allowed a kickoff, fumble or interception return for a touchdown in eight straight games.

I got two words for Steelers' special teams coach Bob Ligashesky: Mr. Mom.

The Big Ligashesky and his wife, Shelley, had their first child this summer. He should have plenty of time to change diapers after he's fired.

The Steelers' calamity Sunday was not limited to the usual suspects. I once dubbed Heath Miller "Hands of God." Well, God punished me on Sunday. Or maybe He just punished me for not going to church.

That opening kickoff was starting to fade from memory when the Steelers took a 17-7 halftime lead and got the ball to start the second half. Just when they seemed poised to add to their lead, a Roethlisberger pass bounced off Miller's hands and into the hands of Andy Studebaker.

Studebaker's interception helped set up Leonard Pope's 21-yard touchdown catch, which cut the Steelers' lead to 17-14.

The Steelers, who outgained the Chiefs 515-282, were about to restore their two-possession lead late in the third quarter. But from the Chiefs' 10, Studebaker picked off Roethlisberger in the end zone and returned his second interception 94 yards to the Steelers' 8 to set up Succop's game-tying field goal.
The last time a Studebaker ran like this, the Steelers had yet to win their first playoff game.

Studebaker, by the way, is a second-year man from Division III Wheaton College in Illinois. That means the Steelers were victimized by a Division III product, a guy passed over 255 times in the draft, and a guy who was just a pipsqueak running around the locker room when the Steelers were winning Super Bowls in the 1970s.

At least there are no shitty teams left to play in November.

November 22, 2009
Head & Shoulders on the shelf

According to ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is expected to miss 3-4 weeks with his strained PCL.

That sucks, but even if Pittsburgh's favorite shampoo pusher does miss the next four games, three of them are against the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns. With or without Polamalu, if they can't beat any of those teams, they don't deserve to go to the playoffs.

Winning at Baltimore next Sunday night might be tough, although the Ravens will be without Terrell Suggs.

So if the Steelers want to act like a playoff team, they should at least go 3-1 over the next four games without Polamalu. That would put them at 9-4 and likely in the thick of the wild-card race when Polamalu returns for the last three games, which are home to Green Bay and Baltimore and at Miami.

Of course, there's always the possibility that ESPN is full of shit. But since three of the next four games are against opponents the Steelers should beat even if they're hung over, they can afford to be cautious with Polamalu's knee.
November 21, 2009

No sunshine in KC

Once one of the NFL's toughest stadiums for a visiting team to play, Arrowhead Stadium has become a prison camp for former Steelers tormentors.

Actually, there's only one true Steelers tormentor in this NFL oblivion, and he won't even be playing Sunday. Mike Vrabel, a Steelers castoff who with the Patriots celebrated two AFC championships on the Heinz Field turf, is out indefinitely with a knee injury.

Fresh soil?

Head coach Todd Haley and quarterback Matt Cassel tried to become Steelers tormentors last season, but instead were shoved aside in the Steelers' pursuit of their sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Cassel fumbled twice and threw two interceptions in the Steelers' 33-10 win over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. I think his soiled underwear from that game is part of the Steelers' 2008 championship exhibit at Heinz Field. Haley was the Cardinals' offensive coordinator last season, and his offense worked to perfection, at least in the fourth quarter, in Super Bowl XLIII. But it was trumped by Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes.

So Cassel and Haley could compare notes. They both have an ax to grind with the Steelers. But with the team they have around them, they might be heading into the game like the knight in the Far Side cartoon who can't find his helmet so goes into battle with just a kitchen pot on his head.

There are a couple of other Steelers tormentor wannabees playing for the lowly Chiefs. Tight end Leonard Pope also played for the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. Wide receiver Chris Chambers played against the Steelers twice last season as a member of the Chargers. He caught three passes for 21 yards in the Steelers' 11-10 regular-season win and four passes for 72 yards in the Steelers' 35-24 playoff win.

Also at 1 p.m. Sunday is Cleveland at Detroit. The most meaningless NFL game of the year, right? Well, maybe not. I think Steelers fans should pull for the Browns in this one. If the Browns lose to the Lions, Eric Mangini might get fired.

I want Mangini to survive at least until the Steelers' game in Cleveland on Dec. 10. That way, at least we have a full season to make fun of Mangini. It's not fair that Patriots fans had three years to make fun of Mangini when he coached the Jets, and Steelers fans will probably only get a year to make fun of him. So let's hope the Browns beat the Lions, so the Steelers can get Mangini fired on Dec. 10.

Speaking of Mangini, before we get too overconfident about the Steelers beating the Chiefs, let's not forget what happened right around this time two years ago. Mangini led the 1-8 Jets to a 19-16, overtime win over the 7-2 Steelers. It was the beginning of the end for what started as a promising 2007 season.

The Steelers need this win to get their 2009 season back on track.

November 15, 2009
Special needs

Bengals 18, Steelers 12

By Mike Batista

OK, OK. The Bengals are for real. Blah, blah, blah.

They've swept the Steelers for the first time since 1998. Let's put them right up there with the '85 Bears and the Lombardi-era Packers.

I'm not here to praise the Bengals. I'm here to rip the Steelers.

One unit I won't rip (much) is the defense, which gave the Steelers a chance to win this game despite losing Troy Polamalu to a knee injury in the first quarter. Polamalu hurt his left knee, the same one that caused him to miss four games earlier this season. It's unclear at this point how long he'll be out (check my Steeltweets for updates).

Because of the way the rest of the Steelers performed, the effort of the defense was in vain.

History lesson

The biggest culprit is special teams. After the Steelers (6-3) took a 3-0 lead on Jeff Reed's 28-yard field goal in the first quarter, Bernard Scott took the ensuing kickoff and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown. Not that it mattered, but Bengals kicker Shayne Graham missed the extra point, keeping the score 6-3.

The Steelers gave up six points on special teams, and wouldn't you know it, they lost by six points. In the last four games, this was the third kickoff return for a touchdown they have allowed. Something has to be done about the kickoff coverage.

Let's hope the Steelers don't make the same mistake they made in 2001, when they finished 13-3 but sucked on special teams. They swept it under the rug until the Patriots exposed it in the AFC championship game.

This year's Steelers have a long way to go if they're even going to get that far.

So long, shorty

Here's an idea. If Polamalu is out for an extended period of time, how about the Steelers cut Stefan Logan and use that roster spot to add depth at safety? The 5-foot-7 Logan's only purpose is to score touchdowns on kickoff or punt returns. We're more than halfway through the season and he doesn't have a single touchdown.

Late in the third quarter, with the Bengals leading 12-9 and punting from their own 2, Logan called for a fair catch at the 50. It didn't look like he could have returned the punt for a touchdown, but he could have at least tried to squeeze out a few yards. It might have been the difference between the Steelers settling for a game-tying field goal, which is what happened, and scoring a touchdown to take a four-point lead in the fourth quarter.

The way it played, the defense could have held a four-point lead.

Being 5-foot-7 myself, I'm an advocate for short guys. But it's time for Logan to go.

Cards with the 'tards

Here's another problem. After playing heads-up football for a few weeks in a row, it looked like Santonio Holmes again decided to give himself a prostate exam by sticking his head up his ass.

Holmes led the Steelers with seven catches for 88 yards, so his cranium was not lodged in his rectal cavity for the entire game, but it was when it mattered most.

Holmes let a touchdown pass go through his hands in the end zone with 21 seconds left in the first half. So the Steelers settled for a field goal and a 9-6 halftime lead.

That pass was one of the few that Ben Roethlisberger threw on the mark. If Roethlisberger were a computer Sunday, he would have needed to be rebooted, because he was just a little off, completing 20 of 40 passes with an interception. The Bengals could have had more picks. They got their hands on a lot of passes.

It didn't help that Roethlisberger was sacked four times, even though a couple of them came when he was wrapped up at the ankles, probably not hurting him any more than an ankle-biting puppy. It was the sixth straight game Roethlisberger's been sacked at least three times, a career high. He's been sacked 27 times this season.

Whatever happened to the offensive line being better because those guys all hang out with Roethlisberger and bond together? Did they have a fight the last time they hung out? Did somebody not like the kind of potato chips Roethlisberger bought for their card game? Whatever it is, they need to talk about it. Communication is key in any relationship.

Dance the game away

Even though he didn't have a great game, I'm not going to rip Rashard Mendenhall as much as I'm ripping everyone else. He had just 36 yards on 13 carries. He's not going to get 165 yards every game. He ran into a good defense. The one thing that bothered me, though, was his inability to get the tough yards.

With the Steelers trailing 6-3, Holmes caught consecutive passes of 21 and 10 yards to put the ball on the Bengals' 5. Then the Steelers' momentum petered out when Mendenhall tried to dance his way through the hole and lost three yards.

Seems like Mendenhall hasn't learned to punch it between the tackles. The Steelers, who were held without a touchdown for the first time since last year's 11-10 win over the Chargers, settled for a game-tying field goal.

Maybe the Steelers' offense has grown too accustomed to the defense scoring points. They didn't do that Sunday, but they did make this game winnable. Until the Bengals' final drive.

The Bengals led 15-12 and took over on their own 21 with 6:16 to play. The Steelers could have held the deficit to a field goal, but unnecessary roughness on James Harrison (couldn't he at least act civilized?) and offsides on Lawrence Timmons helped the Bengals get close enough for a field goal and an 18-12 cushion.

Not that it made a difference. Logan got the Steelers to their 33 on the kickoff, but that was it. Roethlisberger threw four straight incomplete passes. Game, set, match.

Kiss someone else's ass

Now the Bengals (7-2) essentially have a two-game lead on the Steelers in the AFC North because they own the tiebreaker.

The Steelers will likely have to navigate the wild-card labyrinth to get into the playoffs. Those wins over the Broncos and Chargers could come in handy.

I knew it wasn't a good thing that the TV suits were putting the words "Steelers" and "Super Bowl" in the same sentence all week. Now they can fawn over Bengals.

See how they like it.

November 12, 2009

'Hey, kid. Catch!'

This will be a good way to fire up the Heinz Field crowd before Sunday's AFC North showdown against the Bengals.

To honor the 30th anniversary of the famous Coca-Cola commercial in which "Mean" Joe Greene tosses his jersey to then 9-year-old Tommy Okon, both will be on the field in a pregame ceremony in which Greene will accept a Clio award for his role in the commercial. The Clio recognizes creative excellence in advertising.

The commercial debuted during the Major League Baseball playoffs in 1979. Greene won the Clio that year but wasn't available to accept it, and hasn't received it since. As part of the ceremony, Greene and Okon will reunite for the first time in several years.

This should get the crowd so charged up that Carson Palmer won't be able to hear himself think.

And just to throw another log on that fire in your bellies, here's a story about the Heart of a Steelers Fan.

Showing their teeth
Steelers 28, Broncos 10

By Mike Batista

How important was the Steelers' win over the Broncos on Monday night?

It was as important as brushing teeth.

Now they have to floss.

Beating the Bengals next week is even more important, because if they lose, they'll be a game behind them in the AFC North, and the Bengals will own the tiebreaker by virtue of their head-to-head sweep.

But let's not downplay what the Steelers (6-2) accomplished Monday night. Not only was it their first road win over a decent team, but they won in Denver for only the fifth time in franchise history, including playoffs.

Two of the Steelers teams that won in Denver (1978 and 2005) went on to win the Super Bowl. One of them (1984) reached the AFC championship game. The other one (1990) was in playoff contention until the final week of the regular season.

So historically, a win in the thin mountain air usually means the Steelers are good.

With the game well in hand late in the fourth quarter, Invesco Field at Mile High was swamped by Terrible Towels. It was a scene reminiscent of last season at Gillette Stadium, another venue where the Steelers have had a hard time winning.

This stadium coup took place because the Steelers beat the Broncos (6-2) in much the same way they beat the Patriots last season. They followed a tight first half with a dominant second half.

In the first half, it was the Steelers who were dominated. They had just three first downs and 25 rushing yards. They didn't even penetrate Broncos territory until nearly three minutes into the third quarter.

Despite getting their asses kicked in the first half, the Steelers led 7-3 at halftime because of a guy who was tired of getting his ass kicked.

Tyrone Carter had a rough time when he was called upon to fill in for an injured Troy Polamalu earlier in the season.

Carter was pressed into duty again Monday to spell free safety Ryan Clark, who sat out because of his sickle-cell trait, which nearly killed him the last time he played in Denver.

In his second stint as a starter, Carter redeemed himself by intercepting Kyle Orton and returning it 48 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter.

The Broncos scored a defensive touchdown of their own in the third quarter when Ben Roethlisberger was strip sacked and Robert Ayers returned the fumble 54 yards for a 10-7 Broncos lead.

It took 2 minute and 15 seconds for the Steelers to regain the lead for good.
The Steelers showed championship resiliency when Roethlisberger completed an 18-yard pass to Mike Wallace and a 35-yard pass to Santonio Holmes. Those plays were sandwiched around a 24-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall, who gained 130 of his 155 yards after halftime.

Roethlisberger's 3-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward gave the Steelers a 14-10 lead with nine minutes to go in the third quarter.

Roethlisberger blew a chance to add to the lead late in the third quarter when he threw an interception to Andre' Goodman from the Denver 15, his first red-zone interception in two years.

That was as close as either offense came to scoring for a while. The Steelers' defense did a good job protecting their four-point lead, and provided a boost to the offense when Polamalu intercepted Orton to give the Steelers the ball at the Denver 25.

Three plays later, Wallace hauled in a 25-yard touchdown pass to increase the Steelers' lead to 21-10 with 7:12 left in the game.

The Broncos went three-and-out, and the Steelers slowly but surely took the air out of the Broncos' balloon with a five-minute drive that culminated in another 3-yard TD reception for Ward.

Carter came up with his second interception with 24 seconds left. It was Orton's third interception after just one in the first seven games.

It reminded me of the Steelers' Monday-night win in early November last season, when they intercepted Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell twice after he went 271 straight passes without a pick. That win also improved the Steelers' record to 6-2.

Of course, a lot has to break the Steelers' way for this season to unfold the way last season did. But considering how worried I was earlier in the season that the Steelers were following the path of the 2006 team, it's nice to be able to draw a parallel from a championship season.

Now if the Steelers could figuratively floss their teeth next week by beating the Bengals, we'll all have a bigger reason to smile.

November 9, 2009
History in the making

The biggest game of the Steelers' season kicks off in a little more than two hours. This being the last NFL game before Veterans Day, let's take a moment to remember the soldiers who lost their lives last week at Fort Hood, and also to say thanks to all those who are fighting overseas to protect our way of life.

My way of life is staying indoors on warm November afternoon and blogging about the Steelers, leaving the house only to drive around Westchester County in a futile attempt to find Iron City Beer.

This is a case of deja vu. The Steelers are 5-2, playing a Monday-night game on the road in early November against a good team.

Sounds a lot like last year, doesn't it? The Steelers played on the eve of Election Day, beat the Redskins, who started 6-2 last year but haven't been the same since being slapped around by the Steelers. By the time I was finished writing my column, it was a couple of hours before the polls opened, so I just stayed awake and went to the polls at 6 a.m.

History isn't at the turning point it was when the Steelers played in Washington at this time last year. However, it is the 20th anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall came down.

That was a great day for freedom, which is what our men and women overseas are fighting for.

October 26, 2009

15 in 15: TDs by the D

ESPN is doing 30 in 30. Now I'm doing 15 in 15.

In honor of the Steelers' two defensive touchdowns Sunday in the fourth quarter of their 27-17 win over the Vikings, I'm ranking the Steelers' 15 most pivotal defensive touchdowns over the past 15 years.

1994 is a good starting point. That was the year the Steelers went 12-4 and were stunned by the Chargers at home in the AFC championship game, but it marked the beginning of this era in which reaching the Super Bowl pretty much became the standard for the Steelers.

I'm doing this because I'll be damned if my traffic goes down during the Steelers' bye week. The Steelers don't play again until Monday, Nov. 9 at Denver. That means there are 15 days between games, so counting down from No. 15, I'll roll out one pivotal defensive touchdown a day.

So it's 15 years, 15 defensive touchdowns, in 15 days.

Here we go.
No. 15: James Farrior

(Steelers 19, Bengals 14, Nov. 21, 2004, at Cincinnati)

This was in the midst of the Steelers' 15-game winning streak during Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season, certainly a pivotal year in the history of the franchise.

With the Steelers' trailing 7-3 midway through the second quarter, Farrior intercepted Carson Palmer and returned it 14 yards to give the Steelers a 10-7 lead. The Bengals took a 14-10 halftime lead, but the Steelers took the lead for good in the third quarter when Roethlisberger threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Dan Kreider, who now plays for the Cardinals.

This was when Roethlisberger was a fresh-faced young lad. While he showed signs of the quarterback he would become, the less he had to throw at this point, the better the Steelers did. Roethlisberger won a lot of games by just not fucking up. He was 15 for 21 in this game with a touchdown and no interceptions.

The Steelers improved to 9-1 with this win, a win they wouldn't have had without Farrior's six points.
Before I continue to count down the Steelers' 15 most pivotal defensive touchdowns of the past 15 years, let me make clear that Sunday's defensive touchdowns against the Vikings won't be included. Why? Because if the Steelers lose the rest of their games and finish 5-11, then those defensive TDs won't be very pivotal, will they?

Historical context is one of the considerations. It's hard to rate Sunday's touchdowns not knowing how this season is going to turn out.

Now, on with the countdown.

No. 14: Troy Polamalu

(Steelers 20, Packers 10, Nov. 6, 2005, at Green Bay)

Sunday wasn't the first time the Steelers picked Brett Favre's pocket when he was closing in on giving his team the lead.

Believe it or not, the three-game losing streak that nearly torpedoed the Steelers' 2005 championship season could have been longer. Just before that skid, Charlie Batch stepped in and won two games in place of an injured Ben Roethlisberger (I guess Roethlisberger really wasn't acting this time). Boy, did Batch need help, though.

Against the Packers, Batch compiled a quarterback rating of 39.8 by completing nine of 16 passes for 65 yards with an interception. That interception came at the start of the second quarter. The Packers set up shop on the Pittsburgh 36 with the Steelers clinging to a 6-3 lead. Troy Polamalu was called for pass interference, giving the Packers a first-and-goal at the Steelers' 3. A one-yard gain and a couple of false starts moved the Packers back to the 12.

I'm not sure when gray hairs started to sprout up on Favre's head and face, but Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden probably gave him a few more, or maybe his first ones, by sacking him and knocking the ball loose. Polamalu then atoned for his penalty by scooping up the ball and returning it 77 yards for a touchdown and a 13-3 Steelers lead. With the Steelers two yards away from falling behind, it was basically a 14-point swing.

The Steelers ended up winning by that 10-point margin, improving to 6-2. Batch led them to a win over the Browns the following week before they lost three in a row. But I think things turned out OK for them that year.
No. 13: Dewayne Washington

(Steelers 20, Bills 3, Sept. 30, 2001, at Buffalo)

This was a historic turning point for both America and the Steelers.

The Steelers' championship window of the 90s appeared to be slammed shut after they went 7-9 in 1998, 6-10 in 1999 and 9-7 in 2000. They did win four of their last five in 2000, but after they opened 2001 with a 21-3 clunker at Jacksonville, it looked like more of the same.

Then, two days after the season opener came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Play was cancelled the following week. Then the Steelers had a bye. When the Steelers came to Buffalo, the world was a lot different than it was the last time they played three weeks earlier.

Fortunately, things were about to be a lot different for the Steelers. They didn't need the defensive points provided by Dewayne Washington to beat a woeful Bills team. But the fumble forced by Brent Alexander and Washington's 63-yard return at the end of the first quarter opened the game's scoring and provided a spark not only for that game, but for a new chapter in Steelers history.

The Steelers went on to finish 13-3 in 2001. They infamously lost the AFC championship game at home to the Patriots that year, but the malaise of the late 90s was over. The Steelers were back as championship contenders.

Since then, the Steelers have made the playoffs six of the last eight years. And when they didn't make the playoffs, they refueled. They finished 6-10 in 2003, and used the high draft pick to get Ben Roethlisberger. They finished 8-8 in 2006, then Bill Cowher rode off into the sunset and in came Mike Tomlin, who led the Steelers to their sixth Lombardi Trophy.

One little wrinkle in my countdown is that two defensive touchdowns in the same game will be counted as one item. You could argue that I should take each one from the same game and rank them individually, but I look at it as having twins. The only difference is they don't come minutes apart.

Not that I've ever given birth to twins or anything.

With that in mind, on with the countdown.

No. 12: Brentson Buckner and Chris Oldham

(Steelers 41, Patriots 27, Dec. 16, 1995, at Pittsburgh)

There was a time when the Patriots were too much of a laughingstock to be hated. That began to change when Bill Parcells took over as coach in 1993. They made the playoffs in 1994 and reached the Super Bowl in 1996. In between, the Steelers went to the Super Bowl. The Patriots finished 6-10 in 1995, but their performance in this game foreshadowed how much of a problem they would be for the Steelers in the next decade.

This was the next to last weekend of the regular season, and the Steelers were fighting for a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. They led 10-6 in the second quarter when Brentson Buckner returned a fumble 46 yards for a touchdown and a 17-6 Steelers lead. The Steelers took their biggest lead, 24-12, in the third quarter, but the pesky Patriots wouldn't go away (these were the good old days, when the Patriots were nothing more than "pesky.")

Drew Bledsoe, who threw the ball 60 times, completed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Pittsburgh native Curtis Martin in the fourth quarter. That was followed by a 2-point conversion throw to Dave Meggett to tie the game 27-27.

But this Steelers team wasn't like the 1994 team, which fell short of the Super Bowl because it had no offense. They took the lead back when Ernie Mills caught a 62-yard touchdown pass from Neil O'Donnell. But to put the Patriots away they needed a touchdown by safety Chris Oldham on a 23-yard fumble return.

The Steelers had two defensive touchdowns in a game that they won by two touchdowns. They improved to 11-4 with the win and secured a first-round bye in the playoffs, which helped pave the way to Super Bowl XXX.
No. 11: Willie Williams and Alvoid Mays

(Steelers 31, Chargers 16, Oct. 1, 1995, at Pittsburgh)

Unless you're from the Pittsburgh area, you might have a hard time remembering Alvoid Mays, who played at West Virginia. After five years with the Redskins, this would be his last year in the NFL.

Willie Williams might be a little easier to remember. After four years with the Steelers from 1993-1996, Williams played for the Seahawks for seven years, then came back to Pittsburgh in 2004 and at 35 earned a ring with the Steelers the following year.

Williams helped point the Steelers to their first Super Bowl under Bill Cowher with his performance in Week 5 of the 1995 season. The Steelers won their first two games then lost their next two, and they were without Rod Woodson, who tore his ACL in the season opener and didn't return until the Super Bowl.

Willie and Alvoid helped fill the void left by their fellow cornerback by returning interceptions for touchdowns against the Chargers. The Steelers led 7-0 when Williams picked off Stan Humphries and went 63 yards for his TD, then Mays returned a pick 32 yards to give the Steelers a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. The Steelers led 31-6 after three quarters and the Chargers got 10 garbage-time points in the fourth quarter.

How one-sided was this game? Well, it's the last time that I've fallen asleep watching the Steelers. I know, I know. Let me explain.

Back then, I wasn't the beer-guzzling, pizza-munching, sedentary blogger that I am today. In the fall of 1995, I was living in Rhode Island and training for the Ocean State Marathon, and I did a 20-mile run the morning of the Steelers' game against the Chargers.

I don't run marathons anymore, partly because the fall is peak marathon season in the Northeast and most marathons take place on Sundays, and there's no way I'm going to be outside getting exercise and enjoying the beautiful fall colors when the Steelers are playing.

There is an NFL lockout looming in 2011, however. Plus, if they do away with the salary cap and the Steelers become the Pirates of the NFL, then maybe I'll find other things to do on Sundays. Let's hope it never comes to that.

But on that sunny afternoon in 1995, when I was a razor-thin Generation X-er, I did wake up in time to see the end of the Steelers' victory, which improved their record to 3-2 and avenged their stunning loss to the Chargers in the AFC championship game the year before.

It would be another 14 years before the Steelers had two defensive touchdowns in the same quarter.
No. 10: Chad Scott

(Steelers 17, Buccaneers 7, Dec. 23, 2002, at Tampa Bay)

For two teams from different conferences who had only played each other six times over the previous 25 years, the Steelers and Buccaneers had a pretty heated rivalry. Part of it was because a schedule quirk had them playing each other in back-to-back seasons. Apparently, that was enough familiarity to breed contempt.

There was a lot of trash talk between the two sides. Steelers safety Lee Flowers called the Bucs "paper champions." Bucs' loudmouth Warren Sapp skipped through the Steelers' side of the field during pre-game warmups. Jerome Bettis shoved him, which led to a shouting match between the teams.

It was on.

The Steelers entered this Monday night game 8-5-1. The Bucs were 11-3. They were the favorites, but they were without quarterback Brad Johnson, the first sign that this would be a cool night to be a Steelers fan.

The Tommy Maddox-led Steelers took a 7-0 lead on their first possession. Then on the second play of the Bucs' first series, Chad Scott intercepted Shaun King and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 Steelers lead less than four minutes into the game.

It was over.

The Buccaneers didn't lose another game, going on to win Super Bowl XXXVII. There would be no rematch in the Super Bowl between these unlikely rivals because the Steelers were eliminated by the Titans in the AFC divisional playoffs. It's a bitter pill for a solid playoff team to own a win on the road against the team that won the Super Bowl. The Giants and Colts last season found out how the Steelers must have felt in 2002.

While this win didn't lead to a championship for the Steelers, it did help set up their come-from-behind, 36-33 wild-card win over the Browns, when they trailed by 17 in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had to wait three more years for One for the Thumb, but that playoff comeback over the Browns was a memorable moment in team history. Without Scott's interception against the Bucs, it might not have happened.

No. 9: Carnell Lake

(Steelers 24, Colts 22, Oct. 12, 1997, at Pittsburgh)

Thanks to Carnell Lake, the Steelers were able to cover up the mistake of letting Rod Woodson go. Well, for a year, anyway.

Woodson went to the 49ers after the 1996 season. So Lake moved to cornerback from his natural safety position. Without his points in this game, the Steelers would have been humiliated at home by the winless Colts.

The Steelers fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter and answered with 10 points of their own. Then Lake forced a Jim Harbaugh fumble (Peyton Manning was a senior at Tennessee in 1997) and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown and a 17-10 Steelers lead. The Steelers took a 24-13 lead in the fourth quarter and then hung on for the victory, which improved them to 4-2 and was the third of five straight wins.

The Steelers finished 11-5 and reached the AFC championship game in 1997, losing 24-21 at home to the Broncos. It was the second of four home AFC title game losses under Bill Cowher.

No. 8: Chad Scott

(Steelers 34, Titans 24, Nov. 25, 2001, at Tennessee)

During this breakthrough 2001 season, the Steelers vanquished a nemesis in the Titans.

Four weeks earlier, the Steelers beat the Titans at home to break a seven-game losing streak against Tennessee. The first three of those losses came after they moved to Tennessee but were still called the Oilers. But they still hadn't beaten the Oilers/Titans on the road since 1995. Since then they had lost five straight, once in Houston and four times in Tennessee.

The Steelers led the Titans 27-24 late in the fourth quarter. But Steve McNair, a sworn enemy of Steelers Nation, had the Titans at their own 46 with 3:45 to go. Plenty of time.

But Scott, who I forget ended his 11-year career with the Patriots in 2005 and 2006, intercepted McNair and ran it back 45 yards for a touchdown and a 34-24 Steelers lead. That was pretty much it.

With the win, the Steelers improved to 8-2. A season sweep of the Titans, just two years removed from a Super Bowl berth, helped firm the Steelers' status as one of the elite teams in the NFL.

No. 7: Troy Polamalu

(Steelers 28, Bengals 17, Oct. 3, 2004, at Pittsburgh)

You always remember your first time.

My first time? I was 33.

That's the first time I saw Troy Polamalu return an interception.

It's a dazzling display that made its debut in this game.

Ben Roethlisberger won his first career start the previous week in Miami, with the help of Polamalu's first career interception. Nobody knew at the time that it would be the first of 15 straight wins, especially with the way the Steelers were struggling at home against the Bengals. The Steelers took a 21-17 lead on a Jerome Bettis 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.

After a Steelers punt, Carson Palmer and the Bengals took over at their own 20 with 2:19 left. They didn't have the ball very long. On the first play of the drive, Polamalu intercepted Palmer and off he went.

With his hair flying behind him like a superhero's cape, Polamalu zig-zagged his way around so many people that it looked like Grand Central Station at 5 p.m. on a Monday. Many of Polamalu's 22 career interceptions, including three in the playoffs, are followed by this jaw-dropping spectacle.

Polamalu went 26 yards for the TD and a 28-17 Steelers lead. The Steelers improved to 3-1, and a special season, as well as a special career, was beginning to take shape.

No. 6: Rod Woodson and Gerald Williams
(Steelers 23, Bills 10, Nov. 14, 1994, at Pittsburgh)

Was there ever any doubt that Rod Woodson would be in this countdown? He only had 71 career interceptions, 12 of them returned for touchdowns. With the Steelers, the Hall of Fame cornerback had 38 interceptions, fourth most in team history, with five returned for touchdowns.

This game represented the dawn of a new day in the AFC. The Bills were the four-time AFC champions. But with this Monday-night victory, the Steelers showed that it was time for someone else to take over.

On the way to the third of their four straight Super Bowls, the Bills defeated an upstart Steelers' team 24-3 in the 1992 AFC divisional playoffs. It was Bill Cowher's first year as coach, and the Steelers were one of the big surprises in the NFL, going 11-5 and earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But they were no match for the playoff-savvy Bills. They weren't quite ready to be Super Bowl contenders.

In 1994, they were.

Of course we all know that the Steelers fell short of the Super Bowl in 1994, losing at home to the Chargers in the AFC championship game. Their downfall was a lack of offense. Against the Bills, that offense didn't score any touchdowns. Their points came on those two defensive touchdowns and three field goals.

In the first quarter, Woodson intercepted Jim Kelly and ran it back 37 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 Steelers lead. The Steelers had a 16-3 lead at halftime, but the Bills pulled to within 16-10 when Andre Reed caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Kelly. The Steelers got their two-touchdown cushion back in the third quarter when defensive end Gerald Williams recovered a fumble in the Bills' end zone for a touchdown.

This was the last of nine seasons with the Steelers for Williams. He went to Carolina for two years then split time between the Panthers and Packers in 1997, his final season.

The Steelers improved to 7-3 with this win, their second of seven straight. It was a blow to the Bills' hopes of a fifth straight Super Bowl berth. They dropped to 5-5.

The Steelers finished the season 12-4. The journey back to their first Super Bowl since 1979 would take another year. But with this win, they helped ensure that the Bills would no longer be a hurdle on the way there.
No. 5: Deshea Townsend

(Steelers 34, Patriots 20, Oct. 31, 2004, at Pittsburgh)

Red Sox fans celebrated their team's first world championship in 86 years while the Patriots were riding an NFL-record 21-game winning streak.

Then the Steelers threw cold water on the euphoria of New England sports fans.

Except me.

Four days after reveling with other Red Sox fans, I broke from the ranks and retreated to the enclave of Steelers fans in New England.

Ben Roethlisberger connected with Plaxico Burress for two touchdown passes to give the Steelers a 14-3 lead in the first quarter. It wouldn't be the last time Burress foiled the Patriots. Perhaps Steelers fans should be grateful there aren't as many nightclubs in Pittsburgh as there are in New York.

After Burress' second touchdown, the Patriots started at their own 33. But on the first play of their possession, Deshea Townsend intercepted Tom Brady and raced 39 yards for a touchdown and a 21-3 Steelers lead with 22 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Patriots never got closer than 14 points after that.

I don't know what was more amazing about that game, the Patriots losing for the first time in 399 days or the fact that Bill Belichick and Bill Cowher had what looked like an actual conversation during the postgame handshake.

Well, it was Halloween. Maybe Belichick was dressed as a friendly guy.

The Steelers improved to 6-1 with the win and backed it up by beating another undefeated team, the Eagles, 27-3 at Heinz Field the following week.

With that memorable two-week stretch, the Steelers proved they were legitimate and were well on their way to the only 15-1 season in franchise history.

The ride ended when the Patriots returned to Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers in the AFC championship game. The Steelers could only go so far with a rookie quarterback. But at least after a quarter century of Mark Malone, Mike Tomczak, Kent Graham and Kordell Stewart, they finally had a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.

No. 4: Deshea Townsend

(Steelers 20, Cowboys 13, Dec. 7, 2008, at Pittsburgh)

In our previous episode of this countdown, we saw Deshea Townsend take it to the house after intercepting a pretty-boy quarterback.

He does it again here, but instead of Tom Brady, it's Tony Romo.

The Steelers proved their championship mettle the previous week with a 33-10 win over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, only their second win over the Patriots in their last eight games against them.

But for three and a half quarters against the Cowboys, it looked like the Steelers were suffering from the dreaded letdown, which would have washed away much of the glory from that win at Foxborough.

The Steelers trailed 13-3 when Jeff Reed barely made a 41-yard field goal to make it 13-6. Then with 2:10 left, Ben Roethlisberger tied it with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller.

The Cowboys had the ball at their own 15 with two minutes left and all their timeouts. All they needed was a field goal. But with 1:51 left, Townsend picked off a Romo pass intended for Jason Witten and took it in 25 yards for the touchdown and a 20-13 Steelers lead. The Steelers had scored 14 points in 24 seconds.

As I so eloquently pointed out in my game column, it seems like Townsend has been around long enough to have played for Buddy Parker. He and Hines Ward, both in their 12th seasons, are the longest tenured Steelers.

This was Townsend's 20th career interception, his third returned for a touchdown. It came in handy for the Steelers, who in 2008 were an offensively challenged team. The only difference between this offense and the limited Steelers offenses of the mid-1990s was that this team had Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers improved to 10-3 with this win, their fourth of five straight on their way to a 12-4 season. They would need every one of those wins to claim the AFC North title and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.

No. 3: LaMarr Woodley

(Steelers 23, Ravens 20, OT, Sept. 29, 2008, at Pittsburgh)

The boos were starting to rain down at Heinz Field.

After starting the season 2-0, the Steelers suffered a humiliating 15-6 loss at Philadelphia the previous week in which they allowed nine sacks.

In this Monday-night game, they trailed the Ravens 13-3 with five minutes left in the third quarter. The Steelers teetered on the precipice of a .500 record.

Ben Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes for a 38-yard touchdown to make the score 13-10.

Then, on the first play of the Ravens' next possession, James Harrison sacked rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and knocked the ball loose. LaMarr Woodley scooped it up and ran seven yards for the touchdown and a 17-13 Steelers lead. Suddenly, after scoring a total of 12 points in 137 minutes and 22 seconds, the Steelers had 14 points in 15 seconds.

The Steelers improved to 3-1 and started a three-game winning streak. It was the first of three victories over the Ravens in their 2008 championship season. None of them would be easy.

No. 2: Troy Polamalu

(2008 AFC championship game: Steelers 23, Ravens 14, Jan. 18, 2009, at Pittsburgh)

For any team, it's very difficult to beat the same opponent three times in a season.

For the Steelers, it has proven very difficult to win the AFC championship game at home.

The Steelers accomplished both in this game, but without Troy Polamalu's pick six, it might not have happened.

During the 15-year era that is the subject of this series on defensive touchdowns, the Steelers have lost the AFC title game at home four times.

Before this game, they hadn't earned a Super Bowl berth at home since 1995. And in two previous tries, they hadn't won an AFC title game at Heinz Field.

The Steelers clung to a 16-14 lead with less than five minutes left. Ravens' rookie quarterback Joe Flacco struggled, but seemed to have put it together with five straight completions. On third-and-13 from the Baltimore 29, Flacco threw a ball to Derrick Mason that would have been damn close to a first down. Had the pass been completed, the Ravens would have needed about 30 yards to get into field-goal range, with 4:39 still on the clock. A precarious situation for the Steelers.

The outcome of this game was still in doubt because the Steelers simply lacked the offensive firepower to put the Ravens away. On top of that, Hines Ward was out with an injury.

They needed points from the defense, and they got some.

Polamalu picked off Flacco at the Ravens' 40 and once again returned an interception with phoenix-like splendor. With his long locks flowing behind him, he zig-zagged from the left side of the field to the right side until he found open space in front of him. He went into the end zone to give the Steelers a 23-14 lead and more importantly make it a two-score game.

The Steelers finally hoisted the Lamar Hunt trophy at Heinz Field in the stadium's eighth year.

The Steelers might boast the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but with this defensive touchdown, Polamalu again showed that he's the heart and soul of the Steelers' defense.

No. 1: James Harrison

(Super Bowl XLIII: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23, at Tampa, Fla.)

Those close to me will tell you that I sometimes have a difficult time making decisions.

This was not one of those times.

Yes, I might have slighted James Harrison in the last sentence of my previous post. But when I first thought of doing this list in order to keep my traffic going during the Steelers' bye week, I knew what No. 1 would be.

It's indisputable that the Steelers would not have won their sixth Super Bowl without Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown that closed out the first half and gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead.

The Steelers led 10-7 when the Cardinals, out of timeouts, had a first-and-goal at the Steelers' 1 with 18 seconds left before halftime.

Probably tired of being held by blockers without a flag, James Harrison decided to drop back into coverage rather than blitz. He stepped in front of Cardinals' receiver Anquan Boldin and picked off Kurt Warner at the goal line.

Harrison's time in the 100-yard dash: About 15 seconds.

I mentioned in my No. 2 post that Troy Polamalu is the heart and soul of the Steelers' defense. Unfortunately, he was on camera less in the Super Bowl than he's been in games he's sat out this season. This allowed the Cardinals to take the lead in the fourth quarter, and it meant that Ben Roethlisberger had to pull this victory out of the fire in the game's final minute.

It also meant that it's a damn good thing Harrison wasn't content to just preserve the Steelers' lead at halftime. The Steelers would need every single one of those points.

After not being drafted, being cut four times and waiting until he was 29 to earn a starting job, Harrison wasn't about to quit in his effort to give the Steelers a 10-point halftime lead.

Running with a convoy of white jerseys blocking for him, Harrison navigated the red jerseys as well as the sideline, which he came perilously close to at one point, and completed the longest play in Super Bowl history.

It helped the Steelers become the first team in history to win six Super Bowls.

And if you're not already charged up for tonight's big game, perhaps watching Harrison's touchdown one more time will do the trick.
Lightning strikes twice

Steelers 27, Vikings 17

There's "The Men Who Stare at Goats," a new military comedy starring George Clooney and Kevin Spacey.

Then there's "The Men Who Almost Became Goats," starring Rashard Mendenhall and Jeff Reed.

The Steelers entered Sunday's game against the unbeaten Vikings having won three in a row after a 1-2 start, but while they appeared to have righted their ship, they still didn't look the same. Something was missing.

That something was game-changing turnovers. In the season's first six games, the Steelers forced just eight turnovers while committing 12.

Sunday's game was turnover free for three quarters, after which the Steelers led 13-10. That's not a comfortable margin against a quarterback as dangerous as Brett Favre. They needed a takeaway to seize control of the game.

That need for a turnover became more urgent when Mendenhall fumbled at the Vikings' 4-yard line on the second play of the fourth quarter.

The drop, Mendenhall's second in two weeks, came after Santonio Holmes caught a short pass from the Steelers' 46 and spun it into gold, zig-zagging his way around Vikings' tacklers for a 45-yard gain, giving the Steelers' a first-and-goal at the Vikings' 9.

Holmes showing signs that he's ready to play more often like a Super Bowl MVP, plus the Steelers poised to make it a two-possession game, equalled downright euphoria ... until Mendenhall's fumble.

Starting from their own 4, Favre and the Vikings methodically moved the ball up the field, keeping it for 15 plays and nearly eight minutes. Then, backed up on third-and-goal from its own 8, the Steelers' defense finally counterpunched.

Brett Keisel stripped the ball from Favre, then LaMarr Woodley scooped it up and ran 77 yards for the touchdown and a 20-10 Steelers lead with 6:23 left in the game.

At last, like a chef dusting off an old recipe, the Steelers' defense rediscovered the turnover, a staple of their success over the past decade and a half.

There was only one problem. Steelers players still had time to enter the Goat Sweepstakes.

The next contestant was Reed, who can fight cops but can't tackle a guy named Percy. The Vikings' Percy Harvin got loose on Reed's ensuing kickoff. Reed had a chance to tackle him near midfield, but instead went all matador and made a lame attempt to stop him without stepping in front of him.

Harvin went the rest of the way for an 88-yard touchdown return, narrowing the Vikings' deficit to 20-17 with a little over six minutes left.

The Steelers were forced to punt on their next possession, giving the Vikings the ball at their own 26 with 3:21 to go. That's an eternity for Favre.

Of course Favre isn't the only scary part of the Vikings' offense. There's also Adrian Peterson, currently the best running back on the planet.

The Steelers held Peterson in check Sunday. He had just 69 yards on 18 carries. But with the Steelers trying to protect their lead, Peterson found another way to hurt them.

On third-and-4 from the Vikings' 45, Peterson caught a short pass over the middle, leveled Steelers cornerback William Gay, who had a good game to that point, and rambled 29 yards to the Steelers' 26.

Just when it seemed like the Steelers' biggest worry would be the overtime coin toss, the Vikings all of a sudden were within striking distance of the lead.

The Vikings picked up another seven yards to get to the 19. Mendenhall and Reed were being fitted for their Halloween goat costumes when lightning struck again.

This time it was Keyaron Fox. No. 57 saved the day at Heinz.

Fox, a special teams ace replacing an injured Lawrence Timmons at linebacker, was in the right place at the right time when Chester Taylor let a Favre pass bounce off his hands. Fox caught it and ran 82 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

It was the first time the Steelers scored two defensive touchdowns in a quarter since Oct. 1, 1995, when Willie Williams and Alvoid Mays both took interceptions to the house in the first quarter of a 31-16 win over the Chargers.

In this day and age, when the Steelers get two defensive touchdowns in the same quarter, you'd assume Troy Polamalu scored one of them. While Polamalu didn't score either touchdown, without him neither of them might have happened.

Five plays before Woodley's touchdown, Peterson broke off his longest run of the day, 19 yards to the Steelers' 21. Polamalu pushed him out of bounds. Without Polamalu's lateral speed, Peterson probably scores on the play. It showed that in his second game back from a sprained MCL, Polamalu was able to do just about everything he could do before getting hurt. That's a good sign.

Despite his foolishness, I also saw some good signs from Mendenhall. He averaged almost seven yards a carry, gaining 69 on 10 attempts, further cementing his role as the Steelers' starting running back.

His fumble came at the end of a five-yard run to the Vikings' 4. For some reason he felt the need to dive through the air as if he were going into the end zone, which made him more vulnerable to swipes from Viking defenders.

The Steelers' defense isn't always going to score points to cover up mistakes like that. Next time, "The Men Who Almost Became Goats" might not have such a happy ending.

October 24, 2009

Take the QB quiz!

Ben Roethlisberger finally will meet his boyhood idol.

Roethlisberger and Brett Favre will be on the same field for the first time Sunday when the unbeaten Vikings visit Heinz Field. The Steelers did play in Green Bay in 2005, but Roethlisberger was injured. Charlie Batch was under center for the Steelers' 20-10 victory.

In honor of this momentous NFL occasion, I've put together a little quiz to see how well you know the differences between Favre and Roethlisberger. Each question has two answers. You have to decide which one matches Favre and which one matches Roethlisberger. Good luck. And no cheating!



Age: 27; 40

Height: 6-foot-5; 6-foot-2

Weight: 222; 241

Super Bowl wins: 2; 1

QB rating (this season): 109.5; 104.5

QB rating (career): 85.9; 90.9

Favorite music: Country; Whatever it is these kids are listening to these days on those fancy iPods.

Preferred transportation: Motorcycle; Tractor

Likes to wear ...: Jeans; Pinstriped suits

Uses his acting ability to ...: Appear in numerous commercials; Look more injured than he really is

Spends too much time ...: Holding onto the ball during a play; Deciding on his future

Marital status: Single; Faithfully married to Deanna despite ESPN's raging hard-on for him.

Age: A. Roethlisberger B. Favre

Height: A. Roethlisberger B. Favre

Weight: A. Favre B. Roethlisberger

Super Bowl wins: A. Roethlisberger B. Favre

QB rating (this season): A. Favre B. Roethlisberger
QB rating (career): A. Favre B. Roethlisberger

Favorite music: A. Favre B. Roethlisberger

Preferred transportation: A. Roethlisberger B. Favre

Likes to wear: A. Favre B. Roethlisberger

Uses his acting ability to ... A. Favre B. Roethlisberger

Spends too much time ... A. Roethlisberger B. Favre

Marital status: A. Roethlisberger B. Favre

Grading system:

11-12 right: You're a Steelers expert. You could start your own Steelers blog. But don't, because then you wouldn't read mine anymore.

8-10 right: You're a true Steelers fan. You even stuck with them through the 80s.

5-7 right: You like the Steelers, but you probably couldn't name the team they beat to win their first Super Bowl (Hint: They're playing that team real soon).

2-4 right: You wonder what's so terrible about the Terrible Towel.
0-1 right: You're counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report in Bradenton.

October 19, 2009
Kitty litter

Steelers 27, Browns 14

By Mike Batista

It was a mismatch at Heinz Field.

That's right. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin went up against one of the dorkiest coaches in the NFL.

Tomlin had a decided advantage in the coolness department. The man blessed with the ability to resemble both Omar Epps and Bernie Mac stood across the gridiron from Browns coach Eric Mangini, who looks like Stewart from Beavis & Butthead.

Tomlin looked like a bad-ass state trooper sporting his trademark solar-panel sunglasses while Mangini sported his trademark baby fat.

Despite his cameo appearance on "The Sopranos," Mangini's not exactly a cool cat. So the best he could do Sunday was use the Wildcat in trying to match wits with Tomlin.

The claws of the Wildcat didn't draw any blood, but they did leave the Steelers' defense with a couple of minor scratches early in the game. Joshua Cribbs took the direct snap when the Browns lined up in the Wildcat. But he did most of his damage with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

That score put the Browns on the board in the second quarter after the Steelers (4-2) had taken a 14-0 lead. At this point, the Steelers probably should concede a return touchdown by Cribbs every time they play the Browns. You pretty much know it's going to happen.

The Wildcat, the Steelers' lapse on special teams and four Steelers turnovers conspired to prevent the Steelers from blasting the Browns (1-5) back to Cleveland.

The Steelers did, however, take another step forward in addressing their fourth-quarter woes thanks in part to the four turnovers they forced themselves, something they hadn't done a lot of this season.

The first takeaway came late in the opening quarter, with the game scoreless and the Browns on the Steelers' 14. Had the Browns scored first, it might have injected them with the energy their dull coach can't seem to provide.

But with Cribbs throwing out of the Wildcat, Troy Polamalu made his return to the lineup a triumphant one with an interception. He came up limping after the play mostly because he didn't use the knee brace he was supposed to wear. But after the game, he said he was "fine." So apparently no worries there.

The next two Browns' turnovers came late in the third quarter with the Steelers leading 24-14. Both were fumbles forced by Lawrence Timmons. James Harrison recovered the first one and Brett Keisel recovered the second one. Unfortunately, the Steelers answered with two fumbles of their own, one by Willie Parker and one by Rashard Mendenhall.

The Browns never saw the ball again, however, when Ryan Clark intercepted Derek Anderson at the Steelers' 1 with 4:21 to go in the game and the Steelers leading 27-14. Clark, an unsung member of the Steelers' defense, has made two of his seven career interceptions in the past two weeks.

Speaking of unsung defenders, the Steelers didn't do bad stopping the run in their first game without Aaron Smith. They yielded 94 rushing yards on 23 carries.

With the Wildcat, many of those yards were of the gimmicky variety. In their previous two games the Browns had back-to-back 100-yard rushers for the first time in 24 years, and were tied for 16th in the NFL in rushing offense. So the Steelers weren't facing a bad rushing attack. They were facing an average one.

Without Smith, they might get gouged by elite running backs, like the Vikings' Adrian Peterson next week. But if the Steelers can keep average runners under control during Smith's absence, that won't be too shabby.

So while the defense is getting there, the Steelers' offense is already there. The numbers Sunday were staggering.

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 417 yards, his second career 400-yard passing game. The Steelers amassed 543 yards of offense, their most since gaining 645 against the Falcons in 2002 (that game ended in a tie, which means the Steelers had a whole extra quarter to pad that number).

Hines Ward caught eight passes for 159 yards and leads the NFL with 599 receiving yards. He's tied for the league lead with 41 receptions. Heath Miller caught five passes Sunday and has 34 catches this season. He's well on his way to eclipsing his career high of 48 receptions in a season.

The most staggering number, of course, is the fact that the Steelers have beaten the Browns 12 straight times and 18 out of their last 19.

On the field, the competition next week promises to be tougher when the 6-0 Vikings come to Heinz Field.

On the sidelines, however, Tomlin figures to once again look cooler than his counterpart. Brad Childress might be the only coach in the NFL geekier than Mangini.
October 11, 2009

The boys of summer
Steelers 28, Lions 20

By Mike Batista

October is here. Leaves are changing colors in the Northeast. The weather is a little more crisp.

Watching the Steelers, however, would make you think there's still plenty of time to work on that tan.

The Steelers beat the lowly Lions Sunday in another white-knuckle win, then host the dismal Browns next week. Essentially, this amounts to a second training camp for the Steelers (3-2). The way they played Sunday, they could use a few two-a-day workouts in the August heat.

In training camp, teams don't play real games. In this second training camp the Steelers are fortunate enough to be granted, they aren't playing real NFL teams, and they don't look ready to beat a real NFL team.

For the fourth straight week, the Steelers led by at least seven points after three quarters. On Sunday they led 28-13.

Like the Bears, Bengals and Chargers before them, the Lions rallied in the fourth quarter. It fell short. But if the Lions (1-4) were anything more than a team picking up the pieces from a historic disaster in 2008, they probably would have completed the comeback. Or maybe they wouldn't have fallen behind in the first place.

The Steelers took that 28-13 lead when Ben Roethlisberger threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to rookie Mike Wallace with six minutes left in the third quarter. Roethlisberger completed 23 of 30 passes for 277 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, which was returned for a touchdown. Rashard Mendenhall carried the ball 15 times for 77 yards, a clip of better than five yards a carry, with a touchdown.

The offense seemed to be clicking, but the defense was ugly, particularly on third down.

The defense looked vulnerable on underneath routes, with Daunte Culpepper frequently dinking and dunking over the Steelers' pass rush. That helped the Lions convert on 11 of their 18 third downs.

Troy Polamalu appears ready to return next week. But the Steelers' defense without Polamalu was like a marginally attractive woman without makeup. It's an image I hope I can get out of my head.

The Steelers allowed 110 rushing yards on 25 carries Sunday, including 44 yards on three Culpepper scrambles. Eight of the Lions' rushing yards came when Jerome Felton, a second-year fullback from Furman (yes, Furman), went eight yards up the gut of the supposedly stout Steelers' run defense on third-and-7, putting the ball on the Steelers' 28 late in the third quarter with the Steelers trying to preserve their 15-point lead.

Ryan Clark came to the rescue on the next play, intercepting Culpepper. It was just the Steelers' second pick of the season, and it came only after Culpepper was forced to throw across the field after fumbling the snap.

Sacks were another thing the Steelers hadn't had a lot of going into Sunday. They had just eight entering the game, but brought Culpepper down seven times. James Harrison had three of those sacks and has six for the season. Four of the Steelers' sacks came on the Lions' final drive.

In the fourth quarter, the Steelers looked like vintage 2008, which was both good and bad. Their pass rush ultimately was the reason they held off the Lions, but their inability to protect Roethlisberger kept the Lions in the game.

Roethlisberger was sacked three times Sunday, with all three coming in the fourth quarter and two coming on a three-and-out that preceded the Lions' scoring drive. Detroit went 82 yards on seven plays, pulling to within 28-20 when Culpepper threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Northcutt with just under five minutes left.

The Steelers again went three-and-out, giving the Lions the ball on their own 29 with two timeouts and 3:07 remaining. The Steelers embarrassingly let the Lions off the hook on a third-and-19. Northcutt's 22-yard reception moved the ball to the Steelers' 21 at the two-minute warning.

Then three straight sacks, one and a half by William Gay, one by Lawrence Timmons and a half by LaMarr Woodley, yanked the ball back to the 45. Even the Steelers were able to close the deal with Culpepper desperately heaving the ball toward the end zone on fourth-and-34 with 1:18 left. Ike Taylor broke up the pass.

The Steelers likely will have another week to get their act together when they entertain the Browns next Sunday. Then hopefully they'll be ready to start the season.

October 5, 2009
A head-pounding victory
Steelers 38, Chargers 28

By Mike Batista

This was like being on a date with Julia Roberts, and watching her pick her nose during dinner.

Yeah, you're on a date with Julia Roberts, and you still want to get invited into her apartment at the end of the night. But what is she doing?!

Yeah, the Steelers ended their two-game losing streak Sunday, but in doing so, they almost blew leads of 28-0 late in the third quarter and 35-14 midway through the fourth quarter.

By avoiding a 1-3 start, the Steelers (2-2) temporarily have calmed my fear that they're following the trajectory of the 2006 Steelers. But even in victory, they proved that they are, in fact, impaired by a Super Bowl hangover.

This hangover's not as bad as the one that afflicted the 2006 Steelers. It's not the call-in-sick kind of hangover. Unlike the 2006 Steelers, the 2009 Steelers appear ready to report to work and honor their duty as defending Super Bowl champions.

But there were still some cobwebs in those heads Sunday, with one notable exception.

Mike Tomlin lifted the haze in Rashard Mendenhall's head by benching him last week.

I predicted a big game from Mendenhall (I can prove it. It's time-stamped. Click here), and he carried the ball 29 times for 165 yards and two touchdowns. This was against a Chargers team that entered the game ranked 26th in rushing defense and was without nose tackle Jamal Williams. So when Mendenhall reached 100 yards on 22 carries in the third quarter, I wasn't quite ready to fit him for his Pro Football Hall of Fame yellow blazer.

It was the fourth quarter when Mendenhall really showed me something.

The Chargers pulled to within 28-14 with 12:37 left in the game when Jacob Hester recovered Stefan Logan's fumble on a punt return and ran it in 41 yards for a touchdown.

With an uneasiness settling upon Heinz Field, the next series was highlighted by Mendenhall's 32-yard gain, his longest run of the evening. It helped set up Mewelde Moore's 6-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller on a gadget play, giving the Steelers a 35-14 lead with 7:18 left.

The Chargers weren't done yet. A four-play drive ended with a 30-yard TD pass from Philip "Flat Face" Rivers to Antonio Gates. Then San Diego recovered an onsides kick, and needed just three plays to score on a 13-yard hookup from Rivers to Chris Chambers, suddenly making it 35-28 with 4:31 left.

Ben Roethlisberger opened the ensuing Steelers possession by hitting Santonio Holmes for a 15-yard gain. Then the Steelers rode Mendenhall's shoulders to the two-minute warning. The No. 23 overall pick in the 2008 draft picked up yards in chunks of 5, 22 and 9 on the next three plays, helping to set up Jeff Reed's eventual 46-yard field goal, which just about put the game out of reach.

Mendenhall provided the Steelers with something they lacked in their losses at Chicago and Cincinnati, an ability to close out the game by sustaining drives on the ground.

The defense has to help with closing out games, too, of course. And while the defense deserves much of the blame for putting the Steelers in danger of one of the most embarrassing moments in modern franchise history, special teams should share the blame.

The Steelers led 28-7 and forced a three-and-out early in the fourth quarter. Then Logan took the punt at the Steelers' 41 when the ball was ripped from him and returned for a touchdown.

It's great that Logan keeps churning and refuses to go down on kickoff and punt returns. But so far in his brief career, it's yielded two fumbles at critical times and no touchdowns. I'm not sure I'm likin' that.

The next special teams gaffe came after the Chargers (2-2) narrowed their deficit to 35-21 on Gates' second touchdown. The Chargers recovered the onsides kick when the ball bounced off Ryan Mundy like a pinball. The three-play scoring drive that followed was aided by a pass interference penalty on James Harrison, who in pass coverage looked like an 18-wheeler on a dirt road. Then came Chambers' 13-yard score, a wobbly 35-28 Steelers' lead, and a cascade of boos raining down from the yellow seats.

A touchdown on a fumbled punt return, failure to scoop up an onsides kick, Harrison's pass interference penalty. This is the same kind of goofy shit that happened to the 2006 Steelers.

Speaking of goofy shit, the Steelers will play the Lions in Detroit next Sunday for the first time since the Phil Luckett game. Nice, huh?

The only thing the Steelers can prove by beating the Lions is an ability to win on the road, which they haven't done this season.

It would be another step toward beating the hangover.

September 28, 2010

All too familiar

Bengals 23, Steelers 20

By Mike Batista

If I were to compare this Steelers season to a wine, I would say that it's starting to taste like a vintage 2006.

I don't actually drink wine, but I have been known to wine, and the Steelers have given me a lot to wine about lately.

After three games, the 2009 Steelers are following the pattern of the 2006 Steelers, when they defended their Super Bowl title with all the grace of Gerald Ford getting off an airplane.

Don't believe me?

The 2006 Steelers opened with an unconvincing, 28-17 win at home over the Dolphins. The 2009 Steelers benefited from a coin flip when they opened the season with a 13-10 win over the Titans.

The 2006 Steelers dropped to 1-1 with a 9-0 loss to the Jaguars. The 2009 Steelers dropped to 1-1 with a 17-14 loss to the Bears. Both were tight games on the road against teams feeling pretty good about themselves.

The 2006 Steelers lost in what-the-fuck fashion to the Bengals to drop to 1-2. A key turning point in that game came when Ricardo Colclough, a recent second-round draft choice who hadn't done much, muffed a punt deep in Steelers territory in the fourth quarter. On the next play, the Bengals scored the go-ahead touchdown in what would be a 28-20 win.

The 2009 Steelers also lost in what-the-fuck fashion to the Bengals to drop to 1-2. A key turning point in the game came when Limas Sweed, a recent second-round draft choice who hasn't done much, dropped a touchdown pass in the third quarter with the Steelers leading 13-9. That forced the Steelers to go for a 52-yard field goal, which Jeff Reed missed.

I wish the parallels to 2006 ended there, but they don't.

Chargers loom

After losing to the Bengals, the 2006 Steelers played at San Diego in a Sunday-night game. The 2009 Steelers play San Diego on Sunday night.

At least this one's at home.
The 2006 Steelers lost that game to the Chargers. While the 2009 Chargers don't seem like the juggernaut a lot of people thought they'd be, they are 2-1.

So while the Pirates are cleaning out their lockers across the street, the Steelers could very well be reporting to work on the morning of Oct. 5 with a 1-3 record.

Then on Oct. 11, they're at Detroit. The Lions have figured out how to win, and a lot of wacky shit happens when the Steelers play the Lions in Detroit. Could we be looking at 1-4?


One game at a time. Sunday's game against the Chargers could be one of those trap games. The Steelers don't want to get caught looking ahead to the Lions.

Early risers

For most of the first half on Sunday, the Steelers didn't play like a team looking ahead. I guess the best thing I can say about the 2009 Steelers is they're a great first-quarter team. That and a quarter will get them a hot dog at PNC Park.

The way the Steelers dominated early makes this loss all the more maddening. Jeff Reed kicked his second field goal to give the Steelers a 13-0 lead with 12:44 left in the first half. At that point, the Steelers had 207 yards of offense. The Bengals had minus-10, and they didn't get a first down until 18 minutes into the game.

The Steelers' offensive line keeps getting better. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked just three times in the last two games. The Steelers are running the ball better. Willie Parker had 93 yards on 25 carries Sunday. The Steelers also seem to have uncovered a gem in Mike Wallace. The third-round draft choice is tied with the Vikings' Percy Harvin for the rookie lead with 12 receptions. Seven of those came Sunday for 102 yards.

Yet somehow the Steelers are 1-2.

While Wallace is kicking ass, two of the other receivers should be roommates in the Steelers' doghouse this week.

Not too bright

I've already mentioned Sweed's dropped touchdown. The Steelers got away with that gaffe in the AFC championship game last season. But not on Sunday. Had Sweed held onto the ball, it would have given the Steelers a 20-9 lead, and their touchdown on the next possession could have put the game away.

And what are we going to do with Santonio Holmes?

The way they outplayed the Bengals in the first half, the Steelers should have been up by more than 13 points, and they had a chance to put more points on the board late in the first half. On third-and-4 from the Bengals' 35, Holmes caught a pass from Roethlisberger that would have been a first down, but he didn't get his feet inbounds.

Not confident in Jeff Reed, the Steelers went for it on fourth down and turned the ball over to the Bengals, who had enough time to get on the board with a field goal and go into the locker room down only 13-3.

Holmes was the culprit the next time the Bengals put points on the board. With just over a minute gone in the third quarter, Johnathan Joseph intercepted Roethlisberger and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown to cut the Steelers' lead to 13-9. The Bengals missed the extra point, but they made it a game again.

Holmes was the target on that play, but his back was turned when Roethlisberger threw the ball. I swear Holmes is the intended receiver for three quarters of Roethlisberger's interceptions. Holmes does have a Super Bowl MVP performance to his credit. But without the bright lights shining on him, Holmes often has his head where the sun don't shine.

The only catch of the day for Holmes went for 18 yards in the third quarter, part of an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Roethlisberger's 1-yard touchdown plunge, increasing the Steelers' lead to 20-9 with three minutes left in the third quarter.

Running on empty

After the Bengals missed a field goal, the Steelers took over at their own 42 with 14:51 left in the game. Unfortunately, this being the Bruce Arians Era, they're not able to sit on leads and take time off the clock by running the football. Parker gained just 21 of his 93 yards after halftime.

Cedric Benson's 23-yard touchdown run chopped the Steelers' lead to 20-15 with 9:14 left. A championship team shouldn't suffer so much from the loss of one player, but if there was one play that crystallized how much the Steelers miss Troy Polamalu, it was that one. Old and slow Tyrone Carter was the last guy who had a chance to get Benson on that play. I have a feeling Polamalu would have closed in a lot quicker.

The Steelers still had that 20-15 lead with a minute left when the Bengals faced a fourth-and-2 at the Steelers' 20. Carson Palmer's 5-yard pass to Laveranues Coles kept the Bengals alive.

The Steelers let the Bengals off the hook again on fourth down, this time on fourth-and-10, when Palmer completed an 11-yard pass to Brian Leonard to put the ball on the 4 with 19 seconds left.

Brian Leonard?

That's right. Brian Leonard. He also caught the two-point conversion for the final margin after second-year man Andre Caldwell gave the Bengals the lead with his first career touchdown reception.

Painful reminder

It was the first time the Steelers lost after leading by 13 or more since the last time they lost in Cincinnati, a 26-23 overtime defeat in 2001.

I don't like to be reminded of 2001. That's the year the Steelers were shocked at home by the Patriots in the AFC championship game.

At least the Steelers made the playoffs in 2001, so I guess it's better than being reminded of 2006.

September 21, 2009

The blame game
Bears 17, Steelers 14

By Mike Batista

We've seen it so many times over the past couple of years.

Either trailing or tied, the Steelers get the ball with seemingly a lot of time on the clock. Then they surgically move up the field and take time off the clock until there's almost none left, and they either send the game into overtime or score the winning points.

It looked like it was happening again Sunday. But it didn't

After Jay Cutler moved the Bears 72 yards on nine plays and threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Knox to tie the game at 14-14, the Steelers took over with 6:21 left in the game.

With Ben Roethlisberger navigating the offense, CBS showed a shot of his counterpart, helpless on the sidelines with a pout on his face.

It turned out Cutler wasn't so helpless. He would get to put his helmet back on.

The Steelers got to the 25 with 3:23 left. Then Jeff Reed missed a 43-yard field goal.

Not only did the Steelers fail to take the lead, but they left plenty of time for Cutler to put together a game-winning drive, which culminated in Robbie Gould's 44-yard field goal with 20 seconds left, giving the Bears (1-1) a 17-14 win.

Reed is the convenient goat in this game. He also missed a 38-yard field goal earlier in the fourth quarter.

Was he that insulted by the Steelers' contract offer before the season? I wouldn't want to be a paper-towel dispenser in the Pittsburgh area right about now.

But Reed doesn't deserve all the blame. One of the reasons he had to try a field goal from 43 yards away on a wet field is because on the previous play, Santonio Holmes let a touchdown pass slip through his fingers.

After his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLIII, and his many key grabs in Week 1 against the Titans, I really thought Holmes was becoming an elite NFL player.

Unfortunately, like so many times last season, he dropped a few passes he should have had. His head and his ass have been reunited, which probably led to the following reaction:

Rectum: 'Tone, is that you? Hey, long time no see!

Large intestine: Is that Holmes? Hey! Where have you been? You haven't stuck your head up here since before you returned that punt for a touchdown against the Chargers in the playoffs last season.

As far as I know, Willie Colon was not part of the conversation.

At least Holmes knows how to catch a ball when he feels like it. Ike Taylor, on the other hand, couldn't catch a cold if he went to the North Pole in a bathing suit.

The Steelers (1-1) could have used an interception or two on Sunday, and there were a couple Taylor could have had. But, as the scouting report says, Taylor is a superior cover corner, but he lacks "ball skills."

One person who finally showed some balls Sunday is Rashard Mendenhall, who was the driving force behind the Steelers' only points in the second half.

After catching a pass from Roethlisberger and falling on his ass, Mendenhall got up, dodged some tacklers and gained 13 yards. Two plays later, he gained 39 yards on the ground to give the Steelers a first-and-goal at the 2. Roethlisberger took it in himself for a 14-7 Steelers lead with 5:26 left in the third.

Mendenhall, playing in his hometown, put the bust talk on hold for a week with his three-carry, 39-yard performance. But his effort was wasted.

Yes, it would have helped if the Steelers had Troy Polamalu (Tyrone Carter was picked on more than Waldo in Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" video). One sack and no interceptions from the defense isn't going to cut it. But championship teams weather injuries. They also hold onto touchdown passes in the end zone and make field goals in the fourth quarter.

In the first quarter, the Steelers looked every bit like a championship team.

They answered their critics by moving the ball on the ground and providing outstanding pass protection for Roethlisberger. They didn't allow a Bears first down and took a 7-0 lead with Roethlisberger's TD pass to Matt Spaeth on fourth-and-goal from the 1-foot line.

The second quarter was a different story.

Early in the period, Roethlisberger completed his 10th straight pass for 21 yards to Hines Ward, giving the Steelers a first down at the Bears' 38.

But just when it looked like the Steelers were about to take control of the game, Roethlisberger's disturbing knack for underthrowing rookie receiver Mike Wallace reared its head when he was picked off by Charles Tillman. The Bears eventually tied the score 7-7, which was the count at halftime.

After completing 11 of his first 12 passes, Roethlisberger completed only 12 of his last 23 and finished 23-of-35 for 221 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Cutler was 27-of-38 for 236 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The proven winner was outdone by the proven whiner.

That's the kind of day it was.

September 26, 2009

NFL not getting the picture

Before I get to Sunday's Steelers game in Cincinnati, I'm going to talk about the NFL's blackout rule, which I think is hypocritical.

This week, the Oakland Raiders couldn't sell out their home game against the Denver Broncos, and the Detroit Lions couldn't sell out their home game against the Washington Redskins. So the games are blacked out in those markets, which means they won't be shown on television within 75 miles of those stadiums. A game is blacked out if it's not sold out 72 hours before kickoff.

Last week, the Jacksonville Jaguars' home game against the Arizona Cardinals was blacked out.

The reason I think the NFL is being hypocritical is because in recent years, the league has sent the message that it cares more about fans watching on TV than it does fans who go to the stadium.

To ensure quality matchups in prime time on Sunday nights, the NFL has instituted "flexible scheduling" late in the season. This allows more attractive Sunday afternoon matchups to be moved to Sunday night, which sets off a chain reaction in which a 1 p.m. game usually is moved to 4:15 p.m.

For fans taking trips to see the games, this can wreak havoc with travel arrangements. For local fans who have to work on Monday morning, it can wreak havoc with sleep arrangements.

So while shafting some fans going to games, the NFL turns around and says that if fans don't go to games, they won't be able to watch on TV.

Talk about a double-edged sword.

Tickets to an NFL game aren't exactly cheap, especially for people in a depressed city like Detroit.

The Redskins visit the Lions Sunday a week after winning by just two points at home to the shitty St. Louis Rams. It wouldn't be entirely surprising if the Lions won their first game in two years.

Problem is, Lions fans who aren't at the game, many of whom are unemployed, won't be able to see it on TV because they didn't shell out triple-digit dollar amounts for tickets, parking and all the other expenses involved with going to a game.

It's too bad, because watching a Lions win on TV would be a nice emotional boost for downtrodden Detroit-area residents.

While the NFL has no plans to compromise on its blackout rule, it's throwing a bone to fans in blacked-out markets by making games available on NFL.com after midnight, free of charge. They're available for 72 hours except during the Monday Night Football telecast.

How convenient. If fans somehow avoid finding out the score before midnight, they have to somehow avoid seeing the score when they log onto NFL.com. Then they get to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, get a couple of hours sleep and head to work the next day. Thanks, NFL!

The NFL should soften its stance and allow fans who can't go to games to watch on TV, especially in this economy. The TV networks pay the bills, so fans watching at home are just as important to the league as people at the stadiums.

And the NFL knows that.

This is coming from someone who doesn't have to worry about blackouts. I live in New York, so if a Steelers blackout ever occurred, it wouldn't affect me. However, I gladly plunked down $40 for NFL Game Rewind, and I'm going to need it this week.

I won't be able to see much of Sunday's Steelers game. I'm needed somewhere else. But even though I'll know the score by midnight, I will watch on NFL Game Rewind and provide my take on the game, just like I do every week.

September 19, 2009

Turning points

The Steelers are playing in Chicago for the first time since Nov. 5, 1995, when they beat the Bears 37-34 in overtime. That was their first win against the Bears in Chicago, where they had lost their previous 11 meetings against them.

While these teams are infrequent interconference foes, they often seem to meet when the Steelers are at a turning point. And these meetings are somehow intertwined with my personal life.

So perhaps it's fitting that on Sept. 19, 1971, the Steelers played their first game in my lifetime that counted. They lost 17-15 at Chicago. It was Chuck Noll's third season. They went 6-8. That was the year before the Immaculate Reception.

Staying connected

In 1992, Bill Cowher's first year as coach, the Steelers started the season 10-3. Then they went into Chicago and got hammered by the Bears 30-6. I was a senior at Emerson College in Boston, and I had bad feelings about the game because the Bears were honoring Mike Singletary that day (I think he kept his pants on). I figured it would fire them up. That loss in the Windy City seemed to take the wind out of the Steelers' sails. They dropped two of their last three, finished 11-5 and lost 24-3 at home to the Bills in the divisional playoffs.

In 1995, the Steelers started the season 3-4, then won eight straight and went to Super Bowl XXX. Because of their lackluster start, the Steelers weren't first and foremost on my mind that fall. I still spent many Sundays visiting friends from college trying to stay connected (if only Facebook had been around back then).

So it didn't bother me at all that when the Steelers played the Bears in Week 10, my only peek at the game came during ESPN's NFL Primetime. I was with a friend of mine at the Cask & Flagon in Boston. This guy hated football, so he and I were on different wave lengths when on one of the televisions I saw a shot of Steelers players holding hands on the sidelines. Norm Johnson kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Steelers the win in OT. They improved to 5-4. It was the second of eight straight wins. It was the start of something big. I just didn't know it at the time.

Good Mike Hunting

Ten years later, I reached a point in my life where it was unfathomable to spend a Sunday afternoon in the fall with a guy who doesn't like football. I had watched every Steelers game during the 2005 season. Then they lost three in a row and fell to 7-5. Their next game was at home against the Bears. I planned to go to a sports bar to watch it. But, to quote a line in "Good Will Hunting," I had to see about a girl.

In a decision influenced in part by the Steelers' losing streak. I spent the afternoon with a woman I was seeing at the time and gave up the Steelers game. She and I just chilled in her apartment. I confess I did go to her computer quite a bit for score updates on nfl.com. The Steelers beat the Bears 21-9. Like their win over the Bears a decade earlier, it was the start of something big. The victory was the first of eight straight games the Steelers would win, culminating in their Super Bowl XL victory.

Sometimes I wish I had watched that game. It was played in the snow, which added to the drama. And it was Jerome Bettis' last great game as a Steeler.

And the girl?

Unfortunately, things didn't work out. We reconnected last year, but we drifted apart again, for much the same reason we drifted apart the first time.

Now, the Steelers are playing the Bears again. I'll be watching the game as a new member of the New York City Pittsburgh Steelers Meetup Group at the Public House on East 41st St. in Manhattan.

And, yes, there is a new woman in my life. I plan to see her Sunday.
But first, I'm watching the Steelers.

September 11, 2009

"The Steelers have three third-round picks today, making the third round of the 2009 draft one of the most pivotal rounds for the Steelers in recent memory."

Me on April 26

Something to smile about

Steelers 13, Titans 10, OT

By Mike Batista

When I got all giddy about the Steelers' draft in the spring, it was based on names and scouting reports.

Now, with autumn in the air, one of those third-round picks has jumped from those printed words onto a stage in front of millions of viewers.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace of Mississippi made the play that put the Steelers' win in their back pocket Thursday night.

In overtime, Ben Roethlisberger hit Wallace for a 22-yard completion to the Titans' 15. On the next play, Jeff Reed kicked a 33-yard field goal with 10:20 left in OT to give the Steelers a 13-10 win over the Titans in the NFL season opener at Heinz Field.

The Steelers needed more than 60 minutes, but Mike Wallace didn't mind putting in a little OT. By making that catch, the rookie picked up Hines Ward, who minutes earlier had a Steelers victory in his hands, right around that same spot on the field.

With 63 seconds left in regulation and the Steelers at the Titans' 34 with the score tied 10-10, Roethlisberger threw over the middle to Ward, who caught the ball well within field goal range and tried to get every extra yard he could. In doing so, he allowed the ball to get knocked from his hands by the Titans' Michael Griffin. Tennessee recovered at its own 4, and played for overtime.

It takes an awful lot for Ward to lose his smile. Defender with harmful intentions bearing down on him? He's beaming. Called for a holding penalty? Ear to ear. Dropping a pass in the second quarter? Those pearly whites are still flashing.

There was no aw-shucks smile when Ward lost that fumble. He had a scowl for the rest of the game. Only when he was being interviewed on the field after the Steelers won could we see the embers of Ward's incandescence. The Steelers don't play again until Sept. 20 at Chicago, so Ward has 10 days to restore his full grin.

Were it not for Wallace, it might have taken a lot longer. Since I imagine Wallace has received some mentoring from the veteran by now, bailing Ward out was a good way for Wallace to reciprocate.

Now, the bad news.

I guess it's only fitting for a column in which "60 Minutes" is invoked that we have bad news.

Troy Polamalu left the game late in the first half with what appeared to be a sprained MCL. Thankfully, Agle Crumpler did not completely crumple Polamalu's knee when he landed on it. It was at least encouraging to see Polamalu walk off the field under his own power. The initial prognosis is he will miss 3-6 weeks.

Despite playing less than a half, Polamalu led the Steelers with six tackles and had an interception. In my Steeltweets, I thought about tweeting that I think Polamalu had already earned a spot in the Pro Bowl in the first half of the first game of the season. But before I could do it, NBC's Al Michaels said it on the air. While I wish I could have posted it before Michaels said it, it worked out well for me, because I would have been guilty of jinxing Polamalu. Now Michaels is the culprit. Hey, Al, Polamalu's injury better not be so bad that we have to believe in miracles.

While the Steelers have won seven straight season openers, the longest current streak in the NFL, we know that an opening win tells us very little in terms of just how good the Steelers will be this season. Obviously, Polamalu's injury will not help. He'll be out for a tough opening stretch, which includes games at Chicago in Week 2 and home to San Diego in Week 4.

Then there's the running game, which amassed 36 yards on 23 carries. That simply won't cut it if the Steelers want to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

It's just too bad that Mewelde Moore has be lumped in with that underperforming unit. The Steelers are getting so much more bang for their buck with Moore than they are with Willie Parker (13 carries for 19 yards Thursday) and Rashard Mendenhall (4 carries for 6 yards).

Granted, Moore had just 5 carries for 8 yards. But two of those yards kept the Steelers' game-winning drive going. On second-and-2 in overtime, Moore got the ball to the Steelers' 43 to move the chains, a short-yardage call I don't think Parker or Mendenhall could have answered.

Moore also caught four passes for 28 yards. Two of those receptions helped the Steelers possess the ball for 13:37 of the final 15:35 of action, including OT. He caught an 8-yard pass to put the ball on the Titans' 10 and help set up Reed's 32-yard, game-tying field goal with three minutes left in regulation. He also caught a 9-yard pass to put the Steelers on the fringe of field goal range on the play before the play that could have lived in infamy.

Of course the Steelers' problems running the ball are nothing new. They didn't do much on the ground in Super Bowl XLIII, either. Roethlisberger often threw screens to Santonio Holmes in lieu of a running game.

Holmes, in fact, had statistics Thursday identical to his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLIII. In both games, he caught nine passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Although there were no plays Thursday quite as famous as his game-winning Super Bowl catch, those numbers had just as much impact as they did in Tampa.

Another reminder of Tampa Thursday night was the offensive line providing protection when it mattered most. They did allow four sacks, putting Roethlisberger on pace to be sacked 64 times this season. But two of those sacks came in the first quarter (that put the pace at 128 for the season) and just one came after halftime.

Just as they did last season, Moore, Holmes and the offensive line showed they know how to win.

Polamalu and Ward know how to win, too. Let's hope Polamalu's knee heals quickly. We know Ward will make a speedy recovery with the smile.

September 9, 2009
The Steelpranos

(Part II)

Episode title: To your fuckin' graves!

Previously, on "The Steelpranos":

I began revealing my 2009 NFL predictions and got as far as the Steelers taking on the hated Patriots in Foxborough in the AFC divisional playoffs, but before I said who I thought would win, I got all deceptive like Sopranos producer David Chase and turned it into a cliffhanger.

So now, the conclusion.

The bad news is, the Steelers defense will not be able to stop Tom Brady, Randy Moss & Co. The good news is, the Patriots defense won't be able to stop Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed, and maybe not even Mike Wallace.

So it's going to be a shootout.

With lots of lead changes.

The game will be talked about for years to come.
The final score will be 42-38.

The Steelers will win.

Last year's 33-10 win over the Matt Cassel-led Patriots was all well and good. But the Steelers will not have truly vanquished their New England nemesis until they beat them in the playoffs and send Brady trudging off the field with his head down. It would be the Patriots' first home playoff loss since 1978 (they've won 11 straight home playoff games).

When the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, they still had to beat Finland to win the gold medal. In his pep talk before the game against Finland, coach Herb Brooks told his team that if they lose, and fall short of the gold after such a historic victory, they would take the loss "to your fuckin' graves!"

Brooks then left the room, came back a minute later and said:

"To your fuckin' graves!"

A Steelers win over the Patriots in the playoffs, at least according to my predictions, wouldn't be as big an upset as the U.S. beating the Soviet Union. But considering the Patriots are about as likeable now as the Soviet Union was back then, and how much the Patriots have tormented the

Steelers, beating them in the playoffs would set off a Lake Placid-type celebration in Steelers Nation.

The Steelers' win over the Patriots last year spiked traffic on my site so much that I felt like Forrest Gump on the shrimp boat. And that was a regular-season game.

So the Steelers would take it to their fuckin' graves if they beat the Patriots but fail to win the Super Bowl.

But will they?

Here are my predicted playoff results (seeds in parentheses):

AFC wild-card

(3) Steelers 37, (6) Colts 10

(5) Ravens 24, (4) Titans 21

NFC wild-card

(6) Packers 20, (3) Bears 13

(5) Redskins 14, (4) Cardinals 9

AFC divisional round

Steelers 42, (2) Patriots 38

(1) Chargers 28, Ravens 14

NFC divisional round

(1) Giants 24, Packers 16

Redskins 20, (2) Falcons 17, OT

AFC championship

Steelers 27, Chargers 17

NFC championship

Giants 25, Redskins 14

Super Bowl XLIV

Steelers 31, Giants 20

That's right. The Steelers will repeat as Super Bowl champions.

After the epic battle against the Patriots, the Steelers beat the Chargers in an anticlimactic game. Then after two weeks of endless stories about how the Maras and Rooneys are related by marriage, the Steelers pick on Eli Manning after kicking his big brother's ass four weeks earlier.

Hey, might as well take advantage of the fact that I can predict a Steelers championship without getting laughed at.

Don't stop believin'!

September 8, 2009

The Steelpranos

I want to be David Chase.

The only problem is there's nothing I can do on this site that would come close to being as cool as what Chase did as producer of "The Sopranos."

So the best I can do is present my 2009 NFL predictions the way David Chase would, as a narrative with lots of twists and turns in the plot. But I promise I won't cut to black in the middle of a sentence.

However, like "The Sopranos," this story will include violence and adult language.
Let's start by playing the classic Win-Loss game with the 2009 Steelers' schedule. Here's how I see it unfolding:


The first loss comes at home to San Diego in Week 4. Because I see the Steelers and Ravens splitting their regular-season series, with both teams winning on the road, the second loss comes to Baltimore in Week 16 and the third loss comes to a Miami team fighting (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to get into the playoffs.

So the Steelers start the season 13-1, but lose two in a row to close the regular season. Steelers fans react with calmness and serenity when the Steelers manage to blow both home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the final two games.

OK, maybe they don't.

This brings us to my forecast for the playoff seeds:


1. Chargers (13-3)
2. Patriots (13-3)
3. Steelers (13-3)
4. Titans (10-6)
5. Ravens (11-5)
6. Colts (10-6)


1. Giants (12-4)
2. Falcons (11-5)
3. Bears (10-6)
4. Cardinals (10-6)
5. Redskins (11-5)
6. Packers (10-6)

After Mike Tomlin kicks the shit out of a few players (including Kraig Urbik, which will look like Tony Soprano beating up Georgie at The Bing), the Steelers straighten out their act and bitchslap the Colts 37-10 in an AFC wild-card game at Pittsburgh.

That earns the Steelers an AFC divisional matchup against the Patriots, a.k.a. Team Evil.

The Steelers beat the Patriots in Foxborough last year, but the Patriots were playing without Tom Brady. We know Brady will play in this game because without him, the Patriots don't make it this far.

With a playoff win over the Patriots, the Steelers can:

A) Prove they can beat a Brady-led team in the Tomlin Era

B) Atone for the Patriots' 2001 and 2004 AFC championship game wins in Pittsburgh

C) Beef up their resume for Team of the Decade if they do somehow win Super Bowl XLIV

So who wins?

I'll let you know in my next post, which I'll have before the season kicks off Thursday night.

August 30, 2009

Death, Dynasties and the Decade

Steelers owner Dan Rooney, now the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, was among the many who had kind words regarding Ted Kennedy, who died last week at age 77.

Edward M. Kennedy, who had served as a Massachusetts Senator since Buddy Parker coached the Steelers, was buried yesterday. By now you've probably heard countless times that the Kennedy family is the closest thing America has had to a political dynasty.

Well, right now, the Steelers are the closest thing the NFL has to a dynasty. They are the reigning Super Bowl champions and have won two of the last four Lombardi Trophies. But they're not a dynasty. Not yet, anyway.

Look it up

Webster (no, not Mike Webster) defines "dynasty" as "1. a succession of rulers of the same line of descent. 2. a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time."

So that means the Rooneys fit the definition of a dynasty. But it doesn't really help us figure out what the Steelers need to do if they're to be considered a dynasty.

I did a Google search on the word "dynasty" and the first thing that came up was the Wikipedia page for the TV series. The show aired on ABC from Jan. 12, 1981-May 11, 1989. It was a cultural icon of the 1980s, a decade in which the Steelers wallowed in mediocrity.

In the fall of 1989, when "Dynasty" was finally off the air, the Steelers made the playoffs for the first time in five years. It was a turning point for the franchise. Bill Cowher came on board three years later, and you know the rest.

So it's quite clear that the Steelers were cursed in the 1980s by the existence of the "Dynasty" TV series. Therefore, it stands to reason that the show offers no insight into what makes an NFL dynasty.

Since there are few issues affecting our world more than the definition of an NFL dynasty, I've given the matter a lot of thought. I explored the issue before Super Bowl XLIII. Since then, I've simplified my dynasty criteria.

To be recognized as a dynasty, an NFL team needs to have won three of the previous four Super Bowls or four of the previous six. The means the Steelers need to win at least two of the next three Super Bowls to become a dynasty.

Let's be wildly optimistic and say the Steelers win the next two Super Bowls (XLIV and XLV), becoming the first team to win three straight Super Bowls. The dynasty would be in effect. Then let's say they don't win Super Bowl XLVI. Their dynasty would still be in power by virtue of owning three of the previous four titles. But to maintain the dynasty, the Steelers would have to win Super Bowl XLVII. If they didn't, the dynasty throne would be vacated because the three-titles-in-four-years requirement would no longer be satisfied. However, they would have a chance to restore the dynasty by winning Super Bowl XLVIII, giving them four titles in six years.

This four-titles-in-six-years requisite for a dynasty is much more stringent than the four-titles-in-a-decade option I provided in my pre-Super Bowl post. A team can win four titles in a decade without winning any back-to-back, and I think repeating as champions is a crucial skill for any team with dynastic aspirations. So I'm closing the loophole. No way around it, unless you've at least won three of the previous four Super Bowls, or four of the previous six, you're not a dynasty. But you can still be Team of the Decade.

A team of the people

By repeating as Super Bowl champs, the Steelers can make a case as Team of the Decade, or at the very least muddle the Patriots' claim to that honor. In that scenario, both teams would have won three Super Bowls since 2000.

Unfortunately, the Patriots currently occupy the Team of the Decade perch. If anyone but the Steelers wins Super Bowl XLIV, the Patriots would be the undisputed Team of the Decade. So the Steelers have a moral obligation to save mankind from that indignity by successfully defending their title.

There has been an unquestioned Team of the Decade for each full decade of the Super Bowl Era: The Steelers of the '70s (titles in '74, '75, '78 and '79), the 49ers of the '80s ('81, '84, '88 and '89), and the Cowboys of the '90s ('92, '93 and '95). The Steelers and Cowboys were dynasties, too. The 49ers never were, however, because they didn't bunch their championships closely enough.

After winning championships in 2001, 2003 and 2004, the Patriots had a chance to seize Team of the Decade status and leave the rest of the NFL to fight over the crumbs. But they haven't been able to close the deal, thanks to the Steelers.

Not only have the Steelers threatened to spoil the Patriots' anointment as Team of the Decade with their two Super Bowl titles since 2000, they also were the ones to unseat the Patriots' dynasty and make the NFL a democracy again.

The Patriots had a dynasty going after winning Super Bowl XXXIX. It was a corrupt regime that rose to power through espionage. But the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, so the Patriots no longer had three titles in four years.

Now, the Steelers have designs on their own dynasty. There's some work to do, to be sure. But unlike the previous monarchy, it would be a benevolent rule.

August 17, 2009

"All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy. Think I'll lose my mind if I don't find something to pacify. Can you help me occupy my brain?"

From "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath

Any Given Sabbath

In my last post, I said I would point out why the Steelers' schedule this season might not be as easy as it seems.

Due to outside forces, which I really hope I don't have to get into, it's taken me longer than I would have liked to deliver on that promise.

Since my last update, the Steelers have beaten the Cardinals 20-10 in their first preseason game. There were no major injuries. Limas Sweed looks like he's got his shit together (click here to see how far Sweed has come). Rookies Ziggy Hood, Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett all look promising. Undrafted rookie Isaac Redman looks like he could be the short-yardage back the Steelers have lacked since Jerome Bettis. And the story told by Ben Roethlisberger's accuser looks like it's falling apart.

So at the moment, it's all sunshine and lollipops in Latrobe. But I'm going to have to be the skunk at the lawn party here. Hey, I promised paranoia. And I will deliver.

Steelers opponents had a combined winning percentage of .435 last season. But as we learned the last time the Steelers tried to defend a Super Bowl title, we can't take anything for granted. So here is what we need to look out for in 2009:

WEEK 1, Tennessee: If they hadn't coated their hands with cooking oil against the Ravens in the playoffs last season, the Titans would have hosted the AFC championship game against the Steelers, who they beat by 17 four weeks earlier.

WEEK 2, at Chicago: The Steelers and Bears have had a lot of the same shitty quarterbacks, guys like Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller and am I the only one who either didn't know or can't remember that Kordell Stewart played nine games at quarterback for the Bears in 2003? Anyway, considering that the Bears have at least been respectable through the years despite not having a quarterback, they could be downright scary with a real quarterback like Jay Cutler.

WEEK 3, at Cincinnati: I'm going to go with the adage that you can never underestimate an opponent in your division when you're on the road, no matter how putrid they are.

WEEK 4, San Diego: The Chargers have Shawne Merriman back. We'll see just how much that Steelers' O-Line has improved.

WEEK 5, at Detroit: Phil Luckett Day at Ford Field.

WEEK 6, Cleveland: Eric Mangini has an unbeaten all-time record against the Steelers. He's 1-0.

WEEK 7, Minnesota: A matchup of the coolest coach in the NFL, Mike Tomlin, against the geekiest coach in the NFL, Brad Childress. I fear Childress will inspire his team the night before the game with a viewing of "Revenge of the Nerds."

WEEK 9, at Denver: Ryan Clark, the most underrated player on the Steelers defense now that Larry Foote is gone, might have to sit this one out, considering the thin mountain air almost killed him the last time the Steelers played in Denver.

WEEK 10, Cincinnati: The Bengals mean business this season. No arrests since June 1.

WEEK 11, at Kansas City: Matt Cassel committed a few turnovers when the Steelers beat the Patriots last season. But if he hangs onto the football the way Larry Johnson hangs onto Troy Polamalu's hair, the Steelers could be in trouble.

WEEK 12, at Baltimore: The Steelers, not the Patriots, could have been the NFL's first 16-0 team. But the Ravens beat them in Week 2 when they finished 15-1 in 2004. Could the Ravens again foil a perfect season? What I'm trying to say is that this is the game the Steelers are most likely to lose.

WEEK 13, Oakland: The Raiders traded defensive lineman Derrick Burgess to the Patriots. Burgess had a combined 27 sacks in 2005 and 2006. If this guy isn't over the hill, it's a steal for the Patriots. So clearly this is a vast conspiracy against the Steelers. The Raiders probably will suck this year, but by handing Burgess to them on a silver (and black) platter, they're helping the Patriots in their battle with the Steelers for AFC supremacy. I say it's very logical to conclude it's a conspiracy.

WEEK 14, at Cleveland: See Week 3.

WEEK 15, Green Bay: New Packer Anthony Smith will guarantee a Steelers win.

WEEK 16, Baltimore: The Ravens were moaning and whining about always playing at night when they're in Pittsburgh. Maybe there's a reason. Since 2005, the Steelers are 4-0 against the Ravens in Pittsburgh at night, and the Ravens are 1-0 in Pittsburgh during the day. The Ravens got their wish. This is a day game.

WEEK 17, at Miami: The Steelers are probably more talented than the Dolphins, but if it rains, who knows what will happen? (Seriously, click on the link. Somehow I wrote one of my best columns from a 3-0 game.)

August 6, 2009

The eyes of a child

By now, everyone's heard that the Steelers want to avoid a repeat of 2006, when they entered the season as Super Bowl champions, thought they could just show up and win, and fell flat on their face. They started the season 2-6 and finished 8-8.

This will be the third time I witness the Steelers trying to repeat as Super Bowl champions. In 1980 they slumped to 9-7 and missed the playoffs after winning their fourth Super Bowl in 1979.

Winner Wonderland

What a great Christmas it was in 1979. Santa Claus brought me a Steelers coat, a Steelers sweatshirt, a Steelers winter hat with the pom-pom on top, Steelers notebooks (I don't mean laptops, remember this was 1979), Steelers pencils, a Steelers wastebasket and a Steelers shot glass. OK, just kidding on that last one. Maybe.

I was 8. I had just discovered the NFL. And the Steelers were Super Bowl champions. Life was good (Yes, these are pictures of me when I was that age. Sorry about the cheesy wallpaper.).

Then I learned an important lesson: Athletes get old. Steve Sabol said it best on NFL Films. I don't know the exact quote, but he likened the departure of the Steelers' stars of the 70s to leaves falling off a tree in autumn.

Bah, humbug!

Christmas in 1980 just wasn't the same. I don't know what was worse, finding out the Steelers weren't going to win the Super Bowl every year or finding out there was no Santa Claus.

The Steelers still had a chance to make the playoffs going into the final weekend of the regular season. But the Saints had to beat the Patriots on Sunday, and the Steelers had to win in San Diego on Monday night. This was the year, mind you, that the Saints came within two points of being the first 0-16 team. They started the season 0-14 and beat the Jets 21-20 in Week 15.

I remember a sign at the Superdome with a picture of a Steeler kneeling down praying to the Saints for help. That's what it had come to for the mighty Steelers. Four days before Christmas, the Patriots beat the Saints 38-27. No playoffs for the Steelers. And no Santa Claus. Yuck.

Growing up

Over the next 26 years, I'd dealt with asthma attacks, failing tests, not making the high school baseball team, breakups, job losses and having my fake ID confiscated at a strip club (I mean, it's one thing to be denied alcohol, but to be turned away at a place where there's naked women? C'mon!).

So I figured if the Steelers didn't defend their Super Bowl title in 2006, I'd been through worse things in my life. I could take it in stride, right?

Oh, boy.

The Steelers failed in such a stupefying way in 2006, it was just as befuddling to me as a 35-year-old as it was when I was a wide-eyed 9-year-old.

There are so many muffed punts and interceptions and fumbles you can point to, but the one that sticks in my mind happened in Week 9 at Heinz Field against the Broncos.

The Steelers, 2-5 at the time, trailed 31-20 with two minutes left when Hines Ward caught a pass from Ben Roethlisberger and was about to go in for a touchdown. He was right at the goal line. I figured if they scored the TD, got the two-point conversion and recovered the onsides kick, all they needed to do was kick a field goal to force overtime, then if they won they could go into the second half of the season with a little momentum.

All those thoughts went through my head in about 1.7 seconds, then they left my head just as fast when the ball popped into the air after John Lynch knocked it loose. The Broncos recovered Ward's fumble and went on to win. There were so many plays like that during the first half of the 2006 season. Sanity was restored in the second half of the season, but it was too late. The Steelers never recovered from their 2-6 start.

Let's be careful out there

So we can hope for another championship this season, or at least an honorable title defense. But we should be prepared for the worst. Let's not forget that the Steelers needed a couple of extraordinary plays to win Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals provided a blueprint on how to solve the Steelers defense. Don't think that the teams on the Steelers' 2009 schedule aren't studying film of that game.

Speaking of the Steelers' schedule, on the surface, it appears easier this season. The Steelers had the toughest schedule since the 1976 Giants last season. But in my next post, I'll show you why the schedule might not be as easy as it looks.

To be continued ...

August 2, 2009

Birthday boy

They say sports bloggers are 40-year-olds who live in their parents' basement.

Well I'm not 40. Not yet, anyway. I turn 38 today. And I live in a basement, just not my parents' basement. So there!

There were no sports bloggers in 1971. There was no ESPN, either. There was no SportsCenter Fact or Fiction: Chuck Noll on the Hot Seat or Around the Horn: Buy or Sell Chuck Noll Must Make Playoffs This Season to Save Job.

While I was checking into the world on August 2, 1971, Noll was entering his third season as Steelers coach. The Steelers went 1-13 in his first season and 5-9 in his second season. Then they went 6-8 in 1971. But the Rooneys stood by him, and I think it's worked out pretty well for the organization, which has had just three head coaches in the last 40 years, and each of them has won a Super Bowl.

That 1971 training camp was the Steelers' fifth at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. Having grown up in Rhode Island, I just wanted to mention that before that, the Steelers trained at the University of Rhode Island from 1964-66. Right in your backyard, Patriots. Take that!

Six degrees of Steelers separation

There wasn't a whole lot going on in the world the day I was born. But there are a lot of almosts surrounding my birthday, such as the fact that I was born the day after the Concert for Bangladesh. Speaking of music, MTV debuted Aug. 1, 1981, the day before my 10th birthday.

And here are some interesting parallels or near-parallels that ultimately bring us back to the Steelers, if you're willing to work with me just a little:
  • I am two days older than Jeff Gordon (his birthday is Aug. 4, 1971). But I don't think I've ever driven faster than 80 mph, which means that if I decide to drive out to Steelers training camp from New York, it will be Week 3 of the regular season by the time I get there.
  • I am 10 days older than Pete Sampras (Aug. 12, 1971) and almost exactly 10 years older than Roger Federer (Aug. 8, 1981). But I suck at tennis, although I have taken lessons on both hard and clay courts. And it should be noted that Federer lost the Australian Open final the day the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII. That was a rock-bottom moment for Federer from which he has risen from the ashes to win his first French Open and his sixth Wimbledon to surpass Sampras with 15 Grand Slam titles.
  • I am almost exactly 10 years younger than noted Steelers fan Barack Obama (Aug. 4, 1961). Obama graduated with a Juris Doctor magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1991. During that time, I was across the Charles River at Emerson College in Boston (Class of '93) taking classes that involved watching TV. The closest I got to Harvard was hanging out at a Harvard dorm one Saturday night. The best idea these scholars came up with was to phone a place called "Wing It," which delivered chicken wings. When they answered and said "Wing It," these Ivy Leaguers answered "Fuck It," hung up and laughed hysterically. Those guys are all probably making a million dollars a year now.
  • I am exactly one month older than Tommy Maddox and exactly 275 months younger than Terry Bradshaw. Both former Steelers quarterbacks celebrate their birthday on September 2 and both were born in Shreveport, La. For that matter, Ben Roethlisberger has a birthday on the second of the month (March 2, 1982).
  • Perhaps the most prominent athlete I actually share a birthday with is Tim Wakefield, who turns 43 today. The Red Sox knuckleballer is a connection to the glory days of the Steelers' neighbors at The Confluence.

Got all that?

Happy birthday to me.

Mike Batista