Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Starting Over

By Mike Batista

I can't listen to "Black and Yellow" anymore. It hurts too much.

The Steelers' loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV is like a painful breakup. And Wiz Khalifa's tune, adopted as an unofficial Steelers anthem during this thrilling season, reminds me of the good times that have come to an end.

After the 2009 season, it was easy to look forward to 2010 because the Steelers didn't even make the playoffs. But it's not so easy to look ahead to 2011, even if there is a season.

This is the first time since 2007 the Steelers have made the playoffs and lost.

When this happens, I think about how far they've come, and how they have to start over again.

The Steelers' 3-1 start without Ben Roethlisberger seemed like a huge accomplishment at the time, but from the vantage point of the Super Bowl, it doesn't seem like a whole lot.

The Steelers might have taken control of the AFC North with their win in Baltimore. But after playing in the Super Bowl, the AFC North seems like baby stuff.

Such regular-season highlights are like people on the ground when you're looking down from the side of a mountain. They look like they're the size of ants.

The Steelers almost made it to the top of that mountain. Now the climb has to start all over again.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Bowl XLV:
Packers 31, Steelers 25

Not your father's Steelers

By Mike Batista

I've watched my last Steelers game.

My last Steelers game before turning 40, that is.

If you're a Steelers fan younger than 40, you probably didn't really get a chance to witness the Steelers' dynasty of the 1970s. Or if you did, you probably couldn't describe the difference between a free safety and a strong safety.

A win in Super Bowl XLV would have provided this generation of Steelers fans with an experience similar to the glory days of the 1970s. I gladly would have accepted three championships in six years as a feat comparable to four in six years.

But these aren't your father's Steelers. They just don't make Steelers Super Bowl teams like they used to. In the post-Steel Curtain era, the Steelers sometimes lose the Super Bowl.

Out of miracles

A lot has happened since Ben Roethlisberger threaded the eye of a needle for the game-winning touchdown to Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII. The Saints succeeded the Steelers as champions, and we learned (if we didn't know already) that Roethlisberger is not exactly a saint.

Even if Roethlisberger has changed his ways, here's why he still falls short of sainthood: You need two miracles to qualify as a saint. And there would be no second Super Bowl miracle for Roethlisberger.

Sure, it was great theater to see Roethlisberger again assigned the task of leading the Steelers the length of the field with two minutes left in the Super Bowl. But if you keep putting yourself in that spot, sometimes you're going to lose.

A lot has to go right for these epic, career-defining drives to come together. Like Thomas Edison's inventions, some of them just don't work out.

It wasn't a good sign when Mike Wallace, the Steelers' top receiver Sunday with nine catches for 89 yards and a touchdown, had no idea what he was supposed to do on second-and-five from the Steelers' 33. Roethlisberger had to throw the ball away. Then on third down Roethlisberger threw a ball that wasn't close to anyone. The grace of that winning drive in Tampa just wasn't there.

On fourth down, the Packers' sealed their championship when Tramon Williams broke up a pass to Wallace.

The final drive seemed doomed from the start when Keyaron Fox was called for a personal foul on the kickoff, dragging the Steelers from the 26 to their own 13.

Fox joined the Steelers in 2008 and contributed to their championship season as a special teams ace. Unfortunately, he seems to have gone bad. This wasn't the first time he's been flagged this season on a special teams play.

But it wasn't just Fox. Penalties were a problem all season for the Steelers, and they were a problem again Sunday. A blocking-above-the-waist infraction on Ryan Mundy set the stage for the Packers to take control of the game in the first quarter.

That penalty came on the kickoff after the Packers took a 7-0 lead on Aaron Rodgers' 29-yard pass to Jordy Nelson. It put the Steelers on their own 7. Roethlisberger threw the ball on the first play of the drive, but was hit, causing the ball to wobble in the air. It looked like Nick Collins was catching a fly ball in center field for the Brewers as he easily picked the ball off and ran it in 37 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 Packers lead.

Mistakes, they had a few

Every Steeler is to blame for this mistake-riddled performance. But the penalties by the special teams muckers ultimately will be forgotten. Super Bowl XLV will be remembered by Steelers fans for Roethlisberger's two interceptions and Rashard Mendenhall's fumble.

Roethlisberger's second pick was a throw into double coverage. Jarrett Bush came up with it.

Troy Polamalu then tried to keep the Steelers in the game with his biggest hit of the night. Unfortunately, it didn't do much good because it came in the end zone after Rodgers completed a 21-yard TD pass to Greg Jennings for a 21-3 Packers lead.

I was obviously way off on my prediction of Polamalu being the MVP.

Polamalu hasn't done much in any of the three Super Bowls he's played in, even though the Steelers have won two of them.

The Steelers probably don't get anywhere near the Super Bowl without Polamalu's heist in Baltimore nine weeks earlier. The 2010 Steelers season hinged on that play. The Steelers needed a similar rescue in the Super Bowl.

But it never came.

Troy a hair out of place

With the Steelers down by 18, I started to worry that this would turn into one of those vintage 1980s and early 1990s Super Bores, when the Goliaths of the NFC annually dominated the AFC's best offering. There hadn't really been a Super Bowl blowout in eight years. Were we due for one?

The Steelers didn't allow that to happen.

When facing a big deficit in the first half, the first thing you want to do is get points on the board before halftime. The Steelers did just that. A 37-yard pass to Antwaan Randle-El put the ball on the Packers 40 and sparked a touchdown drive that culminated in an 8-yard TD pass to Hines Ward.

That made the Steelers' halftime deficit a manageable 21-10.

Then in the second half the officials decided to start calling penalties on the Packers. Five of their seven penalties came in the third quarter, including a face mask on a punt that gave the Steelers the ball at midfield.

From there they ran the ball five times, Mendenhall twice, Isaac Redman twice and Roethlisberger once. Mendenhall took it in through traffic from the 8 for a touchdown, cutting the Packers' lead to 21-17 with more than 10 minutes left in the third quarter.

The Steelers made it a game again.

I would rather have not seen the Steelers burn two timeouts in the third quarter, having more than one timeout might have come in handy on the final drive. It was also hard to watch Shaun Suisham attempt a 52-yard field goal. Did anyone really think Suisham was going to make that?

Polamalu looked like he could have had an interception with about two and a half minutes left in the third quarter. Had he been a couple of steps to his left, he might have picked off a third-down incompletion right around the Steelers' 20 with room to run. Even though the Packers were forced to punt, Polamalu had his head in his hands at the end of that play. Like most of the night, he was out of position.

Despite all that, the Steelers' defensive muscle in the third quarter forged a field-position advantage.

With the Packers pinned at their own 13 late in the period, the Steelers forced a three-and-out. On the punt, the Packers were penalized and had to re-kick from their 8. The Steelers were in business at the Packers' 41, and Mendenhall ended the third quarter by picking up eight yards.

Fourth-quarter flop

Many Steelers players participated in the universal football ritual of holding up four fingers at the start of the fourth quarter, a signal that if you want to win the game, this is the time to do it.

Mendenhall didn't get the message. He got the ball again to open the final quarter, and Clay Matthews popped it loose. Desmond Bishop (not Bishop Desmond) recovered the fumble.

The Packers, who didn't turn the ball over in the game, scored for the third time off a Steelers turnover. Rodgers threw an 8-yard TD pass to Jennings, making it 28-17 with 12 minutes left.

Starting with the AFC championship game, Mendenhall played like a top-tier running back for seven quarters. He ran for just 63 yards in the Super Bowl, but at a clip of 4.5 yards a carry. Finally it seemed that Mendenhall would be the guy to provide the Steelers with a productive, clock-grinding ground game in the coming years. But that fumble again planted some seeds of doubt.

So it was back to disaster recovery for the Steelers. And recover they did. They got to within a field goal halfway through the fourth quarter when Roethlisberger threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Wallace and followed that with a pretty option pitch to Randle-El on the two-point conversion.

Ziggy Hood sacked Rodgers to start the ensuing possession, and the Packers eventually were staring at a third-and-10 from their own 25.

Momentum once again belonged to the Steelers.

That's when Rodgers showed why he's the Super Bowl MVP.

He threw to Jennings up the middle for 31 yards. Polamalu might have made his biggest impact of the night when he got his hand on Jennings' leg to stop him. It likely prevented a touchdown.

The Packers ran the clock down and got to the Steelers' 5. But the Steelers defense had enough fight left to hold them to a field goal and give
Roethlisberger a chance to win it.

But as a new generation of Steelers fans has learned, you can't win 'em all.
Let me sleep on it

Fully decorated in Steelers gear, I just took the ride of shame on the 4 train in the Bronx, then in a cab back home to Yonkers.

Before that, I left Irish Exit and walked through the streets of Manhattan, the same streets I would blissfully explore on pleasant fall afternoons after Steelers wins during the regular season.

Quite a different feeling walking through the winter chill amid piles of dingy snow after the Steelers lost the Super Bowl.

I'm still trying to process this loss. I'll get crackin' on my column in the morning.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

#Steelers ran out of miracles. Too many mistakes. Final: Packers 31, Steelers 25
#Steelers still breathing. Packers 31, Steelers 25
OK. I'll admit Randle-El has contributed tonight. Packers 28, #Steelers 25
OK. No-huddle time. Score quickly. Packers 28, #Steelers 17
Fourth quarter. Run, Rashard, Run
Very bad, Tomlin. Burning two timeouts in the third quarter?
Where did Suisham kick that? El Paso? Think #Steelers might need a pick-6 at some point.
Guess camera guy got the worst of that exchange with Mendenhall. Packers 21, #Steelers 17
Was that 2 straight touchbacks by Suisham AND a penalty on the Packers? Amazing
A lot of players getting hurt on both sides. Seems like turf field is harder than a parking lot.
Hopefully #Steelers can take advantage of banged up Packers secondary in second half.Packers 21, Steelers 10
Suisham FG. First Super Bowl shutout won't happen this year. Packers 14, #Steelers 3
OK, this isn't good. That pass wobbled more than a drunk at 2 a.m. Packers 14, #Steelers 0
I tweet this just about every game, but here we go again: Penalties killing #Steelers.
So much for William Gay being so much better. Packers 7, #Steelers 0
I don't pay much attention to commercials when #Steelers are in the Super Bowl
Sanders flipping the coin pisses me off just as much as Brady flipping the coin before SB XL
I feel like I should honor mom (1949-2010) by ordering pierogis here at #Steelers bar. Couldn't stand 'em but some days it was the best she could do
Look at the #Steelers out on that field in their underdog whites.
One hour until kickoff. Kiss' Lick It Up playing at Irish Exit in Manhattan. Go #Steelers
I had to get a haircut last week for professional reasons. But I kept a little bit of the hair, put it in a plastic bag and brought it with me to the St
Kickoff in 2 hours. Time for me to fess up. I hadn't had a haircut since September. So my hair had been growing for most of this magical Steelers season.
Dear NFL Network. That's enough Jerry Jones face time. Go #Steelers
If anyone's watching NFL Network right now, wtf on Bible Boy Kurt Warner's tie!?!?
Steelers T-shirt: check. Steelers sweater: check. Steelers coat: check. Terrible Towel: check. Yellow LiveStrong bracelet for good luck (which I almost c
ouldn't find): check. Here We Go ...
Just picked up some laundry. Price was 17.71. That means Flozell Adams nd Mike Wallace will be huge today. Go #Steelers
Super Bowl XLV: A final thought

By Mike Batista

"Poor Mike had to leave the 'Burgh," were the first words I heard from Nick Nery.

On the morning of the Steelers' eighth Super Bowl appearance, the fifth that I have followed, I'm thinking about that phone conversation I had 20 years ago.

It helps demonstrate just how important today is.

I've never lived in Pittsburgh, but I can understand why Nick thought I did. I was calling him for ideas about getting bars in Boston to show Steelers games. I had just turned 19 and was about to enter my sophomore year at Emerson College.

I became a Steelers fan in 1979 and watched them win their fourth championship. Then came the mediocre 1980s. Now, finally, it looked like the Steelers were returning to prominence after a decade of irrelevance.

Seven months earlier, the Steelers came within one point of the AFC championship game. A rag-tag 9-7 team upset the Oilers in the wild-card round of the playoffs and lost 24-23 to the Broncos in the divisional round.

Many of you yinzers are probably familiar with Nick. He himself had to leave Pittsburgh and find places to watch the Steelers in other parts of the country. This was before DirecTV. So growing up in Rhode Island, a Steelers game on TV was a special treat. But it looked like they were finally getting better, so I wanted to watch them more.

That phone conversation expanded my vocabulary. I learned that natives call Pittsburgh "the 'Burgh" and that "yinz" is often used in place of "you."

I also learned that establishing a Steelers bar in Boston was more than I could handle. My education kind of got in the way.

The Steelers' playoff run of 1989 turned out to be a tease, anyway. It would be another five years before the Steelers reached another Super Bowl and another 15 years before they won another Super Bowl.

During that time when I was rarely able to watch the Steelers, it was hard to envision completely missing just two of their 106 games during a six-year period, and that during those six years, they'd have a chance to win three Super Bowls.

It's not something to be taken for granted.

We should appreciate how far the Steelers have come in the last two decades.

They just need to come a little bit further by winning today.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Super Bowl XLV:
Here's What's Going to Happen

By Mike Batista

The Steelers obviously are students of Super Bowl history.

In the grand scheme of things, it's no big deal that Ben Roethlisberger was singing karaoke and Hines Ward, Ike Taylor and other Steelers might have gone to a strip club this week.

But there's a lesson to be learned here.

Thirty years ago, the Oakland Raiders went out and enjoyed New Orleans the week before they played the Eagles in Super Bowl XV.

Like the Steelers this year, many of those 1980 Raiders already had rings. A lot of them were starters on the 1976 team, which won Super Bowl XI.

And like the Steelers this year, that team was loose in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.

Like the Packers this year, the Eagles were Super Bowl neophytes and were a lot more cloistered in the week leading up to Super Bowl XV.

The Raiders went out and beat the Eagles 27-10.

I predict history will repeat itself and the Steelers will win.

The Packers' ability to spread out the Steelers' defense, and their advantage on a fast-track field, are definite concerns, but here are my three reasons the Steelers will win.

The Steelers stars have rings. The Packers stars don't.

Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews seem to be the hot new flavors of the month. But the Steelers can answer with Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu. Not only are they just as good, but they have rings. B.J. Raji? Sure, he's got the pounds. But Casey Hampton's got the rings.

The Cooldown Theory

The Packers are the hot team. As the No. 6 seed, they've won three straight on the road to get to the Super Bowl.

Just like the Steelers in 2005.

That Steelers team was in a groove, and I think the week off before the Super Bowl took them out of that groove. They came out sluggish against the Seahawks. Had Seattle punter Tom Rouen been able to keep the ball out of the end zone at least once in the first half, it might have been a different game.

I think the Cardinals were hurt a little by the week off in Super Bowl XLIII. They also won three straight to get to the Super Bowl. Thank God they didn't get going until late in the third quarter.

Tougher road

Eagles and Falcons and Bears. Oh my!

Give me a break.

Those are the three teams the Packers beat to get to the Super Bowl. Sorry. The Ravens and Jets strike more fear in me than those teams.

The Steelers lost only to playoff teams during the season. The Packers, meanwhile, have losses to the Redskins, Dolphins and Lions on their resume.

The Packers just haven't seen a defense like that of the Steelers.
And they haven't seen Troy Polamalu, who I predict will be the Super Bowl MVP.

I just have a gut feeling that he's due to be a factor after assuming more of a low-key, security-guard role in the Steelers' two playoff wins.

I think Polamalu will have an early interception, maybe take it to the house, and get the Packers off their rhythm early. Then he'll get another pick later in the game.

Many are predicting a close game, I know.
But I think the Steelers will win 38-21.

I'm not trying to be arrogant, and this prediction isn't very scientific, but I just think the Steelers will take a big lead early, then know Rodgers is going to throw the ball and just tee off on him.

The Packers will make a comeback bid in the second half, but it will be thwarted by Polamalu's second pick.

I also think players like Roethlisberger, Ward, Polamalu, Heath Miller and James Farrior are conscious of their place in history if they win a third Super Bowl, and they're not going to blow it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Super Bowl XLV:
Sing Us a Song Tonight

By Mike Batista

Ben Roethlisberger just can't stay out of bars, can he?

According to TMZ, Big Ben was spotted at Pete's Dueling Piano Bar in Fort Worth Wednesday (Correction: Tuesday) night singing "Piano Man."

Let's hope Billy Joel doesn't press charges.

Apparently, Roethlisberger was nice to everyone at the bar and tipped $200 on an $800 bill.

Think he figured out the math by himself?

Perphaps Roethlisberger should have taken a shot at singing Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," because redemption seems to be the theme this week as Roethlisberger prepares for Super Bowl XLV.

Only Roethlisberger and the women he was with really know what happened on that March night in Milledgeville and in the hotel room in Nevada.

Roethlisberger wasn't charged in either case. All we know is that whatever happened, it wasn't cool. And it unleashed a chorus of stories in the Pittsburgh area about Roethlisberger's treatment of women, and people in general.

It was clear Roethlisberger had a lot of growing up to do.

There have been signs this season that Roethlisberger is starting to change his ways. Just the fact that he paid the bill at the bar shows that he's turning a new leaf. He used to skip out on bar tabs.

Roethlisberger won this year's Chief Award for media cooperation. That's not something Pittsburgh writers would have considered him for in the past.

Earlier in the week, when Roethlisberger remarked about Steelers and Packers fans covering Dallas in a sea of yellow, he even seemed slightly effeminate.

Of course, no one is asking Roethlisberger to start dating men as part of his transformation. He's still allowed an attraction to women. And despite what happened or didn't happen in Milledgeville, at least one woman is attracted to him. Apparently Roethlisberger's getting married, too.

But these are all baby steps. I need to see more.

Has Roethlisberger donated to any women's causes? Has he volunteered at any women's shelters? Considering the sketchiness of his dealings with women in the past, it would be nice to see Roethlisberger acknowledge women's issues beyond just wearing pink during games in October.

Perhaps Roethlisberger's already done that in private. If that's the case, good for him. I was in a community service fraternity, Epsilon Omega Psi, at Emerson College (our colors were black and gold). Our advisor told us that it's only a good deed until someone finds out about it.

Maybe marriage will lead to fatherhood for Roethlisberger. If that happens, being a father will be the most important job he ever has.

Raising a child would go a long way toward proving that he's a changed man, a lot more than raising another Lombardi Trophy.

Not that Roethlisberger has to have kids. You need to be ready for that. An onrushing linebacker can be a picnic compared to a dirty diaper.

What I'm saying is that Roethlisberger's redemption process extends far beyond the field, and far beyond Super Bowl XLV.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Super Bowl XLV:
History intertwined

By Mike Batista

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers play Super Bowl XLV on what would have been Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday.

Kind of funny, considering how these two proud franchises fell on hard times during the Reagan years.

The Packers won NFL championships in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967. After winning the last two of those titles, they went on to beat the AFL champion in the first two Super Bowls.

While Reagan was president, the Packers made the playoffs only once, and even that was during the strike-shortened 1982 season, when 16 teams made the playoffs.

After winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s, the Steelers made the playoffs four times in the 1980s, but never got past the AFC championship game. They were the model of mediocrity in the decade, finishing 79-79, playoffs included.

One of Reagan's slogans during the 1984 presidential campaign was "Morning in America."

For the Packers and Steelers, it was the morning after, and the 1980s for them was the walk of shame.

During the George H.W. Bush presidency, both franchises saw a flicker of hope.

While the Berlin Wall was taken down in 1989, the Steelers and Packers appeared to be making a similar breakthrough, and were linked by their interest in the final game of the regular season.

The Bengals played the Vikings in Minnesota on Monday Night Football. If the Vikings won, the Steelers would make the playoffs, and the Packers would be out. If the Bengals won, the Packers would make the playoffs, and the Steelers would be done.

Steelers and Packers players were like kids waiting for Santa Claus, only it wasn't Christmas morning, it was Christmas night, and Santa would only come for one of these teams.

ABC's telecast included cutaways to Steelers and Packers players gathered to watch the game. As the night went on, the living room in which the Steelers watched the game grew more and more crowded. The place where the Packers watched the game, on the other hand, was just about deserted by the end of the night.

The Vikings won, which knocked the Bengals and Packers out of the playoffs and allowed the Steelers to get in as a wild-card team in the AFC.

The 10-6 Packers, led by Pro Bowl quarterback Don Majkowski, had their first winning season since 1982 and were quite likely better than the 9-7 Steelers, who were quarterbacked by Bubby Brister. The Steelers benefited from playing in a conference that was clearly the junior varsity. This was in the midst of the NFC's 13-year Super Bowl winning streak.

The Packers' playoff drought lasted four more years, while the Steelers' 1989 postseason appearance was their last of the Reagan-Bush era.

Bill Clinton had a three-touchdown lead on Bush in the presidential campaign on Sept. 27, 1992. On that day, the rich histories of the Steelers and Packers intersected on the field for the first time.

A guy named William Laird Cowher was the Steelers' new coach, and after a 3-0 start suffered his first career loss when the Steelers succumbed 17-3 at Lambeau Field.

Making his first NFL start that day was a second-year quarterback named Brett Lorenzo Favre. He also would start his next 296 games.

Reagan's Morning in America was replaced by Maya Angelou's "On the Pulse of Morning." When she read that poem at Clinton's inauguration, she might as well have been speaking to the Steelers and Packers.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.
Favre and the Packers realized their dream when they won Super Bowl XXXI following the 1996 season.

The glory days didn't return so quickly for the Steelers. They were better, sure, reaching the AFC championship game in 1994, 1995 and 1997. But they won just one of those games, then lost to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers lost another AFC championship game in 2001. Cowher and Company chased that elusive post-Steel Curtain title with NFL's best defense and a power running game led by Jerome Bettis. But those two ingredients just didn't give Cowher Power enough juice.

The missing piece finally came on April 24, 2004, when the Steelers drafted Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger.

Guess who died exactly six weeks later.

With the Steelers and the 40th president no longer occupying the same planet, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a 15-1 record in 2004 and Super Bowl wins in 2005 and 2008.

Now, the Steelers and Packers cross paths again. This time, they won't be the ones watching TV. Instead, probably half the people in the world who own a TV will be watching them.

And they're a far cry from those playoff-starved franchises looking for one last Christmas gift 21 years ago.