Monday, October 25, 2010

Two words

Steelers 23, Dolphins 22

By Mike Batista

So far in 2010, the Steelers' fortunes have hinged on two words uttered by people in positions of authority.

Six and a half months ago, when Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit D.A. Fred Bright called a press conference to announce if sexual assault charges against Ben Roethlisberger would go forward, the utterance "cannot" triggered a collective "Whew!" across Steelers Nation. The 2010 season wasn't doomed.

On Sunday, everyone awaited the ruling of referee Gene Steratore. A touchdown was called when Roethlisberger ran the ball in from the Dolphins' 2-yard line on third down with 2:30 left in the game. But it appeared Dolphins safety Chris Clemons knocked the ball loose before it reached the goal line.

Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, whose team had been leading 22-20, challenged the call. Steratore, who the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes lives in Washington, Pa., spent more time under the hood than some juries spend deliberating.

As the replay was shown over and over, it became increasingly apparent that this was not a touchdown. Hands were on heads and Terrible Towels were held to mouths at the Irish Exit, a Steelers bar in Manhattan, while Steratore studied the evidence.

When Steratore announced his ruling, he did negate the touchdown. Then came the word that served as the Steelers' saving grace on this day: However.

Steratore followed "however" by saying it was not clear that the Dolphins recovered the fumble in the end zone. It looked like they did, but with the touchdown called, no one bothered to peel bodies away from the pile to see who had the ball.

So the Steelers had a fourth down at the 1, and Jeff Reed kicked an 18-yard field goal for what turned out to be the winning points in the Steelers' 23-22 victory.

More of Moore

Just like we all know damn well that something unsavory happened in Milledgeville, what most likely happened Sunday was Roethlisberger fumbled and the Dolphins recovered in the end zone, which should have given them the ball at the 20.

But due to the complexity of this particular replay review, the Steelers (5-1) kept the ball on a technicality.

Maybe Roethlisberger has taught his teammates how to get away with things since returning from his suspension.

The Steelers got away with a boneheaded display that could have left them down 14-0 in the first five minutes of the game. Fortunately, the Dolphins (3-3) could only get two field goals after recovering Emmanuel Sanders' fumble on the opening kickoff and Roethlisberger's fumble on a sack.

The Steelers also got away with allowing another nondescript quarterback to have a decent game -- Chad Henne completed 23 of 36 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown -- and they got away with not being able to run the ball. Rashard Mendenhall was limited to 37 yards on 15 carries.

Covering up a lot of the Steelers' blemishes in this game was the resurgence of Mewelde Moore.

Moore joined the Steelers in 2008 and as a third-down back was a key cog in their championship that season. He wasn't as much of a factor last season, and had been just about invisible so far this season.

That changed Sunday when Moore ignited the drive that got the

Steelers on the board. He moved the chains with a seven-yard run on third-and-7 from the Steelers 13, and later in the drive picked up 16 yards. The sequence led to Jeff Reed's 22-yard field goal, which made the score 6-3 early in the second quarter.

Moore really made it look like it was 2008 (hopefully without the stock market crashes) all over again with less than four minutes left in the game. The Steelers trailed 22-20 and faced a third-and-5 from the Dolphins' 43. Moore took a short pass from Roethlisberger and turned it into a 29-yard gain, eventually leading to the game-winning field goal.

Sanders fueled the game-winning drive with a 48-yard kickoff return to the Dolphins' 48, answering Carpenter's go-ahead field goal and earning forgiveness for his opening fumble.

Sanders also had a 37-yard kickoff return to the Steelers' 47 in the second quarter. Roethlisberger promptly made it look like it was 2009 (hopefully without the five-game losing streak) all over again with a 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace, extending the Steelers' lead to 17-9.

Hines Ward caught Roethlisberger's other touchdown pass, a 21-yarder that gave the Steelers a 10-6 lead early in the second quarter.

A steep price

The Steelers might not have paid for their spotty performance with a loss. But they were punished anyway, because football is a punishing game.

Defensive end Aaron Smith is almost certainly out for the season with a torn left triceps. The underrated Smith is the Steelers' best run stopper. When he was lost in Week 14 in 2007, the air slowly went out of the Steelers' season. They lost four of their last five games and fell at home to Jacksonville in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Smith had a Pro Bowl season in 2008, and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

In 2009, Smith was lost after the Steelers beat the Lions in Week 5. They won the next three games without Smith, then collapsed when Troy Polamalu was hurt. While it's generally believed that the Steelers' demise last season was directly related to Polamalu's absence, Smith's injury couldn't have helped.

Perhaps the Steelers could have absorbed Smith's injury last year had Polamalu stayed healthy. The only way we can test that theory is if Polamalu remains healthy this season.

An extended absense for LaMarr Woodley won't help the Steelers withstand Smith's injury. Woodley left Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. It's not clear how long he will be out.

Woodley's injury pressed Jason Worilds into duty. The rookie chosen in the second round helped the Steelers nail down this victory when the Dolphins tried to get into field goal range on their final drive. On fourth-and-6 with 1:33 to go, Worilds pressured Henne into an incompletion.

It also should be noted that Worilds has seemed very active on special teams. It remains to be seen if Worilds is ready for full-time duty on defense. But considering what's transpired, now would be a good time for him, as well as defensive lineman Ziggy Hood, to offer a glimpse into the future.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Too much time left. 23-22 Steelers
Sparano you jackass, act like you've had the lead before. 22-20 Dolphins
Uhh, what happened to Aaron Smith? Could be a season killer. 20-19 Steelers
Does Ward need the hyperbaric chamber again? 20-16 Steelers
Wtf was Worilds doing in there that whole drive? 17-16 Steelers
Tick, tick, tick, Mike Wallace! 17-9 Steelers
Nice job, Reed. Pretty soon you'll be able to make big-boy field goals. 6-3 Dolphins.
Steelers won't have any toes left if they keep shooting themselves in the foot.
Sanders is no Antonio Brown. Steelers can get past this.
Rain in Miami. Wow. It's eerie how it always rains when the Steelers and Dolphins play.
Greetings yinzers and non-yinzers alike. Welcome to Week 7.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Be very afraid

Steelers 28, Browns 10

By Mike Batista

Ben Roethlisberger looked like a humbled figure when his name was announced before Sunday afternoon's game.

Wearing his Steelers baseball cap backwards, Roethlisberger trotted slowly onto the Heinz Field turf and raised his arms one at a time to acknowledge the fans, who greeted him with loud cheers.

At least in the eyes of Steelers fans, it seems that March night in Milledgeville is a distant memory.

Still, it wasn't a total love-in as Roethlisberger returned from his four-game suspension. There was a small group of protesters outside Heinz Field. Because of the way he has treated women, there are probably a lot of people out there who still might call him a pig.

I'm going to liken Roethlisberger to another creature that most human beings associate with filth.

The Roethlisberger I saw on Sunday looked like a fly.

And that's a good thing.

Only an elite quarterback like Roethlisberger can release the ball and complete a pass just before getting leveled by a pass rusher. It's sort of like when you see a fly on a table and get ready to squash it. Somehow, flies know how to take off just before your hand comes down, and you end up whacking your hand for no reason.

That's how Roethlisberger gave the Steelers the lead for good in Sunday's 28-10 win over the Browns.

With Browns linebacker Matt Roth closing in, Roethlisberger threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace to give the Steelers a 7-3 lead with 10:40 left in the first half.

The score stayed that way for quite a while. One of the reasons the Browns were able to stay in the game was the punting of Reggie Hodges. He pinned the Steelers (4-1) inside their 10-yard line four times.

Going into Sunday's game, the Steelers really hadn't beaten the Browns convincingly in a game that mattered since the season opener of 2007, Mike Tomlin's head coaching debut.

Considering last season's pathetic display in Cleveland, I should have been happy with any type of win over the Browns (1-5). But just as I was resigning myself to another lackluster win over the Browns, Roethlisberger turned into The Fly again.

Hodges backed the Steelers to their own 4 with 5:12 left in the third quarter. This time it was Scott Fujita who acted as the giant fly swatter, decking Roethlisberger in the end zone just after he found Wallace for a 50-yard reception. Then came a 36-yard pass to Heath Miller, in which Miller looked more like a wide receiver than a tight end.

Three plays later, Hines Ward showed a nose for the end zone, breaking two tackles on an 8-yard TD pass from Roethlisberger and giving the Steelers a 14-3 lead.

Midway through the fourth quarter, special teams ace Keyaron Fox atoned for his costly penalty in the final minutes against the Ravens two weeks ago. Fox recovered a muffed fumble by Chansi Stuckey at the Browns 13, and Rashard Mendenhall eventually scored on a 2-yard run to give the Steelers a 21-3 lead with less than six minutes left in the game.

The Browns weren't done, however. Colt McCoy, making his NFL debut, moved the Browns 70 yards in six plays and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Benjamin Watson to narrow the Steelers' lead to 21-10 with 4:17 left.

This game wasn't put away until Ryan Mundy tipped a McCoy pass and Lawrence Timmons intercepted it with 1:52 left in the game.

Timmons returned it five yards to the Browns 18. Three plays later, Roethlisberger threw his third touchdown pass, 14 yards to Miller, to make it 28-10.

McCoy, picked in the third round of the draft, threw two interceptions (Ryan Clark had the other) and had a pedestrian 80.5 quarterback rating.

I was expecting Pretty Boy McCoy to consider a career driving a milk truck after Sunday's game. After all, this was a rookie facing the Steelers' dizzying defense. But he did complete 23 of 33 passes and played well enough to look like the Browns' answer at quarterback. The Steelers should not have let that happen.

Also watering down this Steelers' win a little bit is the fact that Joshua Cribbs didn't play two-thirds of the game. Running out of the wildcat, Cribbs knocked heads with James Harrison with 9:27 left in the second quarter. He did not return.

Cribbs always has been an albatross for the Steelers. He's returned three kickoffs for touchdowns against them, tied for most against one team in NFL history. As the point man in the wildcat, he kept the Browns in the game in Pittsburgh last season and shredded the Steelers in Cleveland. The Steelers' job became a lot easier when he went down Sunday.

But, hey, the Steelers must have done something right to beat the Browns by 18 points, more handily than anyone else has beaten them this season. One of those things was protecting Roethlisberger, who wasn't sacked. That's no small accomplishment considering Roethlisberger was sacked eight times in Cleveland last season.

Those eight sacks were among the 189 Roethlisberger has been subjected to over the past four seasons. He already was spared a quarter-season of that punishment with his suspension. Even if he's sacked four times in each of the Steelers' remaining 11 games, it will be the fewest times he's been sacked since 2005.

If Roethlisberger has any sequels of The Fly in him, he'll stay on his feet an awful lot.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Steelers win, and they're in first place. Yes, that was a brief cheer for the Patriots at a Steelers bar. Thanks for the help. Now lose the rest of your games.
Ward shows nose for end zone. 14-3 Steelers
Someone tell me how the Browns are still in this game.
Another D-Lineman goes down. Paging Steve McLendon.
Love the site of Cribbs kneeling in end zone.
OK, maybe Batch couldn't have done that either. 7-3 Steelers.
2 completions for 7 yards for Ben. Are u kidding me?
Batch never would have thrown that pick.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Nobody's perfect

Ravens 17, Steelers 14

By Mike Batista

Somehow, we've gone from hoping and praying that the Steelers go 2-2 without Ben Roethlisberger to being disappointed that they went 3-1 without Ben Roethlisberger.

At least I have.

We should be happy that despite the serious damage Roethlisberger's four-game suspension could have done to their season, the Steelers came out of it as one of the NFL's elite teams at the season's quarter pole.

But it's hard to step back and look at the big picture right now, because the Steelers' first 4-0 start since 1979 was within their grasp Sunday before Joe Flacco's last-minute touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh gave the Ravens a 17-14 win.

Since they haven't made it past 3-0 since the days of Bradshaw and Mean Joe, we Steelers fans usually get our "you-can't-win-'em-all" vaccination before the leaves change colors.

Just once, I want the Steelers to be that last unbeaten team standing, the team the relics from the 1972 Dolphins gather to watch every week.

Once again, it will not be a Steelers' loss that cues up the sound of the popping champagne cork on ESPN's NFL Primetime. That's probably a good thing.

The Steelers like to let franchises like the Patriots and Colts tempt perfection while they craft their championship mettle away from the spotlight.

They'll be able to do that again this season, because the last two times they won the Lombardi Trophy, they also started 3-1.

On one hand, the Steelers lost Sunday the same way they lost during their title run of 2008, when they occasionally were out-toughed by a quality opponent. There was no evidence of 2009-type leakage, because they were never really in control of this game and therefore didn't choke away a lead.

Unlike many games last season, the defense supplied the Steelers with two turnovers, both in the third quarter.

Unfortunately, both of those takeaways led to missed field goals by Jeff Reed, which makes this a game the Steelers should have won.

The first came when Lawrence Timmons recovered a Willis McGahee fumble at the Ravens' 27 with the Steelers trailing 10-7. The Ravens pushed the Steelers back four yards from there to set up a 49-yard attempt by Reed, which hit the right upright.

With just over two minutes left in the third quarter, Ike Taylor intercepted a Flacco pass at the Ravens' 33. The Steelers did move forward six yards this time. But five of those yards were awarded when the Ravens were offsides.

Reed, however, could not take advantage of the Ravens' assistance. This time he was wide left on a 45-yard attempt.

Because of his much-heralded lack of "ball skills," Taylor interceptions are as rare as a model sitting next to dorky guy at a bar and talking to him. The Steelers failing to convert Taylor's interception into points is like that dorky guy burping for about 30 seconds. There goes the model, and the dorky guy doesn't get to display his ball skills.

Speaking of guys who like to go to bars, it wasn't just a win the Steelers squandered Sunday, it was a chance to teach Roethlisberger his lesson just in case he hadn't completely learned it by sitting out four games.

By going 4-0, the Steelers would have virtually guaranteed that their winning percentage would be better without Roethlisberger than with him. It would have driven home the point that he's not bigger than the team, and quite likely flushed from his mind any remaining sense of entitlement that led to his boorish behavior.

Whether or not Roethlisberger is a changed man remains to be seen. While he won't be needed to rescue the Steelers, having him Sunday likely would have been enough to overcome the edge the Ravens had.

The Ravens outgained the Steelers 320-210. Charlie Batch literally went more than an hour without completing a pass. In the fourth quarter, however, he moved the Steelers 93 yards on 13 plays, culminating in Rashard Mendenhall's 7-yard touchdown run with 7:14 left, giving the Steelers a 14-10 lead.

Unfortunately, Flacco isn't afraid of the big, bad Steelers defense. He took the Ravens 65 yards on the ensuing drive before William Gay, showing he's a better nickelback than starter, broke up two straight passes.

The Ravens might have fallen short of the end zone, but field position, which so many Ravens-Steelers games come down to, was in their favor. And that proved to be the difference.

The Steelers had the ball on their own 3 with 2:40 left, but could not get the first down needed to stamp out the Ravens. They went into a shell and ran the ball three times. Something tells me Roethlisberger might have been able to give the Steelers a little more breathing room.

All the Steelers could do was burn the clock, leaving the Ravens with 1:15 and no timeouts. Dan Sepulveda punted the ball to the 50, but on a penalty-strewn day for the Steelers (11 for 88 yards), not even special teams ace Keyaron Fox was immune. He was flagged for holding on the punt, giving the Ravens the ball on the Steelers' 40.

Two passes to Anquan Boldin and two to Houshmandzadeh, two weapons Flacco didn't have in his first two seasons, made up the game-winning drive for the Ravens.

Ray Lewis finished off the Steelers by intercepting Batch's last pass as caretaker of the quarterback position.

So the Steelers lost their first game. That, history tells us, is a sign that the season can really start.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ravens, we'll meet again. 17-14 Baltimore
Yay! Reed made a kick! ... Paging Dr. Polamalu. "Splash" play needed stat. 14-10 Steelers
Second missed FG by Reed. Towel dispensers in Pittsburgh beware.
Sure sign summer's over: Tomlin's got sunglasses off.
D or special teams need to get points in this game.
When has beating the Ravens ever been easy? 10-7 Ravens at halftime
Does Flozell get credited with a tackle on Batch?
Steelers pass rush, where have you gone? 7-7
And Randle El joins us for the 2010 season. 7-0 Steelers.
Polamalu changed complexion of that drive. No points for Ravens.
Got my corner claimed at Irish Exit, Steelers bar at 52nd & 2nd in Manhattan.