Big, fat heartbreak
Jaguars 31, Steelers 29
By Mike Batista
January 7, 2008
It was pretty clear the 2007 Steelers had their limitations and were going to get knocked out of the playoffs at some point. It would have been a whole lot easier if they had just done it my way.
I predicted the Steelers would lose to the Jaguars 28-17 Saturday. That was the score after the first play of the fourth quarter when Ben Roethlisberger threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. But it wasn't the final score. Instead, the Steelers put us through a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking fourth quarter in which they came back from a 28-10 deficit and pulled ahead 29-28 with 6:21 left, only to see their season end when Josh Scobee kicked a 25-yard field goal with 37 seconds left, giving the Jaguars a 31-29 win in their AFC wild-card game at Heinz Field.
If my predicted score were correct, then the Steelers would have gone down fairly quietly and it would have been a lot easier on the ol' ticker.
Next year? Who cares?
Despite my forecast for a loss, in the days leading up to the game, I was thinking that the Steelers had a chance to beat the Jaguars and how great it would be to get another shot at the Patriots. How close they came.
The loss puts me in the kind of mood where I don't see how I can get excited about sports ever again. March Madness seems like it's a decade away. And there's a long winter ahead before baseball season starts. Yeah, there's always next year. But at this point you see how long and hard a road it is just to get to the playoffs, and the Steelers have to start all over again next season. That's the kind of mood a Steelers' playoff loss puts me in, especially one like this.
The Steelers came into these playoffs with what might be the worst top-ranked defense in the history of the NFL. This defense couldn't get it done when it mattered most this season. And never did it matter more than when the Jaguars faced a fourth-and-2 from the Steelers 43 with no timeouts and 1:56 left. The Steelers led 29-28 and had the Jaguars on the ropes. But quarterback David Garrard, who looks like Seal without all those welts on his face, scrambled through that overrated defense for 32 yards to the Steelers' 11. This was no "Kiss from a Rose" for the Steelers. It was the kiss of death. Scobee's chip-shot field goal was a mere formality.
How fitting it was that the Steelers' 2007 season ended with one more failure by the offensive line, which let the Steelers down all season. After Scobee's field goal, the Steelers had the ball on their own 28 with no timeouts and 29 seconds left. They needed about 40 yards to get into Jeff Reed's field-goal range. But on the first play, Roethlisberger was sacked for the sixth time and coughed up the ball. Big, fat number 66 Derek Landri recovered the fumble to secure the win for the Jaguars, who deservedly get a shot at foiling the Patriots' perfection on Saturday night.
That 70's show
The O-Line wasn't the only glaring Steelers' weakness that came into play against the Jaguars. The Steelers opened the game with a smooth, 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Najeh Davenport and a 7-0 lead. But any tone-setting was negated by the Steelers' shoddy kickoff coverage. Maurice Jones-Drew returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to the Steelers' 1, and Fred Taylor punched it in from there to tie the score at 7-7.
It's maddening that the Steelers' real downfall Saturday night came right after they had a brush with the glory days. On third-and-10 from their own 16, Roethlisberger threw a pass that Heath Miller couldn't handle. The ball was deflected into the air. Hines Ward grabbed it and scampered to the Steelers' 49. Right on cue, NBC showed a clip of The Immaculate Reception. Unfortunately, the taste of the 1970s was fleeting. We would soon be served some vintage 2006 Roethlisberger. Yuck. And instead of Jack Tatum, the Steelers had to deal with the less menacing but more deadly Rashean Mathis.
Roethlisberger reverted to his 2006 ways by throwing three interceptions in the second quarter. The first two were thrown to that old tormentor Mathis. Just two plays after we were treated to the grainy footage of Franco Harris chugging into the end zone, Mathis returned the first pick 63 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 Jaguars lead. Mathis intercepted another pass on the Steelers' next series to set up Garrard's 43-yard TD pass to Jones-Drew, which increased the Jags' lead to 21-7.
Mathis, you may recall, intercepted two Roethlisberger passes last season in a 9-0 win over the Steelers. In 2005, he beat the Steelers by intercepting a Tommy Maddox pass in overtime and returning it for a touchdown. But at least it didn't stop the Steelers from winning the Super Bowl that year.
This year, Mathis did stop the Steelers from winning a championship. But he had plenty of help, from his teammates and from the Steelers.
The good fight
Roethlisberger completed his interception hat trick late in the second quarter. The Steelers trailed 21-7 but were driving and seemed poised to put some points on the board before halftime. But big, fat number 66 put an end to that. On second-and-4 from the Jaguars' 21, a Roethlisberger dink over the middle found the hands of Landri, a rookie defensive tackle from Notre Dame.
The Steelers didn't get nearly as much help from their Notre Dame connection. With 10:25 left in the game, Roethlisberger threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller to pull the Steelers to within 28-23 then threw to Hines Ward for the two-point conversion. But it was negated by a holding call on ex-Fighting Irish Sean Mahan, a disappointment this season at center.
After missing that two-point try, they had no choice but to go for two when Najeh Davenport gave them the lead on a 1-yard touchdown run. They missed it, which kept their lead at one point.
Then Bruce Arians' perplexing play-calling became a factor. With 2:56 left, the Steelers were facing a third-and-6 at their own 27. Instead of throwing the ball to Ward or Miller, who combined for 11 catches in the second half, Roethlisberger tried to run for the first down. He gained just a yard, and Dan Sepulveda's 40-yard punt was returned to the Jaguars' 49, giving them a good start on their game-winning drive.
No one embodied the spirit of the Steelers' comeback more than Ward, who caught 10 passes for 135 yards. There was a lot of pushing and shoving in the fourth quarter, and the normally affable receiver was right in the middle of it. After Cedrick Wilson caught a pass, Jaguars' defensive back Brian Williams wouldn't let him get up. They had words, and Ward rushed to his teammate's defense. Ward also did some jawing with rookie Reggie Nelson, who got a little too mouthy. Like a true mentor, Steelers' coach Mike Tomlin, not even a full four years older than Ward, put his arm around him on the sidelines to try to calm him down, a scene that demonstrated both the Steelers' unity and Tomlin's firm grip on the reins of the team.
The Steelers fought the good fight, and it went unrewarded. It makes the loss hurt that much more.
Nothing good on TV
By Mike Batista
January 4, 2007
Mike Tomlin's in the wrong business.
The Steelers head coach should have been a doctor. He knows just the thing to heal Willie Parker's leg, Aaron Smith's bicep, Marvel Smith's back and Max Starks' knee. Just show the Steelers' Dec. 16 loss to the Jaguars over and over again on every television at the Steelers' complex.
Tomlin thinks that making the players see the Jaguars' 29-22 regular-season victory over them will help them beat Jacksonville in Saturday night's AFC wild-card playoff game at Heinz Field. But it's not going to help all that much unless it puts Parker, Starks, Aaron Smith and Marvel Smith back in action, and alleviates the nagging injuries to Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden.
Of course, Tomlin's purpose in showing that game tape in a continuous loop is to motivate his players so that a loss to the Jaguars doesn't happen again. Hopefully someday Tomlin will develop the Belichickian skill of making bulletin-board material from almost anything that comes out of an opponent's mouth. There's got to be some way to make Fred Taylor's comments about the Heinz Field turf into a motivational tool for the Steelers. Taylor gained 147 yards on that surface. He was treated very well as a guest by the Steelers defense. What an ingrate.
The Steelers are going to need more than motivation to get past the Jaguars. I'm afraid the Jaguars might just be a better team than the Steelers, and as much as it pains me, I'm going to predict a Jaguars win on Saturday. The Steelers' only hope is if Roethlisberger can take advantage of the Jaguars' suspect pass defense and put a lot of points on the board. He needs to come out throwing like he did in the 2005 playoffs. The only thing is, no one expected the Steelers to come out throwing in the 2005 playoffs. This time, the Jaguars are going to be looking for it. And unless the Steelers can figure out a way to stop the run, the Jaguars will be able to eat up the clock and keep Roethlisberger off the field.
The Jaguars have four wins over 2007 playoff teams this season. They're no longer the "yeah, but" team that ESPN's Chris Berman dubbed them last season. They don't have the playoff experience the Steelers have, but they can win big games. The Steelers have just one win over a playoff team, and that was on Oct. 7 at home against Seattle. They've been exposed since then.
Stopping the run isn't the Steelers' only problem. The offensive line has been a weakness all season, now it's even more of a worry because someone named "Trai" will be starting there Saturday night. With Marvel Smith and Starks both out, Trai Essex will start at left tackle. OK, I know he had a decent game against Baltimore in the regular-season finale. But Trai sounds like a name on "The OC" or "Dawson's Creek." Not only that, but look who the Steelers have added as reinforcements on the offensive line. Jason Capizzi, who stands 6-foot-9, and Jeremy Parquet were put on the 53-man roster. Capizzi might be able
to get a few rebounds for the Steelers, but that's about it. And Parquet is aptly named, considering the butter-like substance the offensive line has resembled this season. Hope they don't need either of those guys.
The Steelers also signed receiver Jeremy Bloom to their practice squad. Nothing says smash-mouth football like a former Olympic skier and fashion model. I'm sure he's really toughening up the active Steelers in practice. The Jaguars must be licking their chops now.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, the dean of Steelers scribes, predicts a Steelers win over the Jaguars. I hope he's right. His premise is that the Steelers played a bad game on Dec. 16 and the Jaguars played out of their minds. Roethlisberger did have a bad game, and it didn't help that his receivers dropped a few passes. But they also had Willie Parker in that game. I hope Tomlin edited out of the Jaguars game tape any footage of Willie Parker running the ball. Reminding the players that they don't have Parker might throw a fly in the motivational ointment.
Hopefully by now a lot of those TVs have been smashed, with the Jaguars next on the Steelers' list.
Day of reckoning
By Mike Batista
December 31, 2007
What did I tell ya'?
The silver lining in the Steelers' 27-21 loss Sunday to the Ravens is that it gives them a 10-6 record, which was my prediction at the beginning of the season.
That's right. I could tell way back in training camp that this team had 10-6 written all over it.
Well, I didn't get everything right. Some of my preseason NFL forecasts were just a bit, uh, off the mark. Click here for a few good laughs.
It looked like a Pop Warner game was being played Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. The Steelers' Willie Reid, filling in for the inactive and ineffective Allen Rossum, fumbled the opening kickoff to give the Ravens a short field. They took advantage by scoring a touchdown, points that came back to haunt the Steelers when their furious comeback in the fourth quarter fell short. After the Steelers scored their first touchdown, the kickoff bounced off the facemask of Ravens return man Yamon Figurs. But Cory Ross recovered the ball at the 20. Later in the second quarter, the Ravens' David Pittman, who intercepted Charlie Batch twice, made his first pickoff and returned the ball 30 yards to the Steelers' 32 before fumbling. Once again, the Steelers couldn't take advantage. Nick Greisen recovered at the Steelers' 33, and the Ravens turned it into three more points.
Considering how seriously the Steelers were taking this game, it's not surprising that it turned into a treasure trove of material for NFL Films' next bloopers package. They could have earned the No. 3 seed in the playoffs with a win and a San Diego loss to Oakland. But it didn't seem like Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had his eye on the scoreboard. Whatever happened in San Diego, the Steelers were going to rest Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu. The Steelers were locked into a home playoff game next weekend anyway. The only benefits from the No. 3 seed would have been avoiding Jacksonville in the first round of the playoffs. Getting healthy outweighs having an easier opponent.
That said, there weren't a lot of positive signs to take from Sunday's game. Najeh Davenport barely looks like he's capable of carrying a bag of groceries, never mind the Steelers' running game. There was one play that typified Davenport's day, in which he ran for 27 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. Late in the first quarter, on first-and-10 from the Steelers' 26, Davenport took a handoff and fell backward as he was stopped by the Ravens' defense. It looked like a brick wall shot up from the turf. Then Davenport needed three tries to punch the ball into the end zone from 2 yards out. Even when he did score the touchdown, it wasn't immediately clear. He couldn't bull his way through the goal-line defense like a true power back. He had to burrow his way under the pile and the officials had to pull bodies away before anyone could tell if he broke the plane. I had said that if Davenport can be a poor man's Jerome Bettis, the Steelers might have a fighting chance in the playoffs. He'll be lucky if he can be a broke man's Jerome Bettis.
Running the ball and stopping the run used to be the Steelers' hallmark. Now, not only can they not run the ball, but their run defense is like Charlie in "Me, Myself & Irene," letting people walk all over them. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew are going to be doing a lot of trespassing on the Heinz Field lawn Saturday night. Unless the Steelers find a way to stop the run, they might need to have a few pooper scoopers handy.
Surprisingly, James Harrison beat out Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers' Most Valuable Player in a team vote. Maybe Aaron Smith should have been voted the MVP. There's clearly a gaping hole on the defensive line without him.
Roethlisberger is going to have to deliver some MVP-caliber performances if the Steelers are going to win any playoff games. The offensive line protected Charlie Batch a lot better than they've protected Roethlisberger. They didn't allow any sacks Sunday. It would be nice if the O-Line was turning the corner with its pass protection. But if Sunday's performance was an aberration, then Roethlisberger's sprained ankle is going to have to heal quickly, because he'll need two good wheels to avoid the Jaguars' pass rush. By the way, I wonder if Roethlisberger got anything for his offensive linemen for Christmas this
year. They were more naughty than nice.
The Jaguars' schedule was more naughty than nice this season. Jacksonville has four wins over 2007 playoff teams. The Steelers have just one, a 21-0 win over Seattle at home on Oct. 7. And the Steelers have been exposed since then. I was on the money with my prediction for the Steelers' regular-season record. I'm afraid I'm also going to be on the money with my prediction for how far they'll advance in the playoffs. I hate to be the skunk at the lawn party, but I don't see the Steelers getting past the Jaguars on Saturday night.
That's what my head tells me. My heart, of course, wants something else to happen.
It's playoff time.
Them's the breaks
By Mike Batista
December 22, 2007
Admit it, you were thinking back to 2005 when the Steelers lost to Jacksonville on Sunday. After all, they recovered from a three-game losing streak to win eight in a row, including three road playoff games, on their way to winning Super Bowl XL. So why can't they recover from a two-game losing streak to win six in a row, with maybe a home playoff game thrown in, and hoist another Super Bowl trophy?
Highly unlikely, of course. But after the magical run of 2005, who can blame Steelers fans for holding out hope for another miracle? Well, now that Willie Parker is out for the season, it's going to take more than a miracle for the Steelers to win their sixth Super Bowl. It's going to take the heavens opening up to reveal God wearing a Steelers hat, with a sea of Terrible Towels waving behind him.
Here's a more realistic Christmas list for Steelers fans: 1) A playoff berth. 2) A win in the wild-card round of the playoffs. 3) A respectable performance against either the Patriots or Colts. It wouldn't be enough for a win, but it would give the Steelers and their fans a lot to look forward to next season.
Anything beyond that belongs on a Christmas wish list, like a sports car (anything but a Jaguar) in the driveway. The Steelers essentially have already won one game (a road game, for that matter) without Parker, since he was injured on his first carry in their 41-24 win over the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night. It was a good training ground for the Steelers to learn how to win on the road again. There were a lot of Steelers fans at the game, but it was still played outside of Heinz Field. The winning-on-the-road training wheels will have to come off next week, though. There probably will be a lot of yellow towels in Baltimore. But the Ravens hate the Steelers a lot more than the Rams do.
Ben Roethlisberger posted his second perfect quarterback rating of the season on Thursday night. If the Steelers are going to make any noise in the playoffs without Parker, Roethlisberger will have to be perfect, or close to it, the rest of the way. He'll have to be the gunslinger he was in the 2005 playoffs. I think he has the offensive firepower to do it if Santonio Holmes can get back to full health, if Hines Ward can keep making those key catches over the middle and if Nate Washington proves that he really has learned to catch a football.
There's no doubt that without Parker, the Steelers are facing an uphill climb steeper than Mount Davis (OK, I looked that one up. I've only been to Western PA once in my life). But honestly, I think the Steelers can survive the loss of Parker more than they could survive the loss of Roethlisberger. If the offensive line doesn't putty up its leaks, the Steelers might have to get along without both. But as long as Big Ben can take a lickin' and keep on tickin', it will be fun to see just how far he can carry the Steelers on his shoulders.
I don't think we've seen all of what Roethlisberger can accomplish. I'm sure there will be a photo of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger wearing leis around their necks in Hawaii the week of the Pro Bowl. Faced with the adversity of Parker's injury, Roethlisberger has a chance to show he really belongs in the same picture with Brady and Manning. He already has a Super Bowl ring. He survived a motorcycle crash within a minute of his life. He recovered from a putrid season to make his first Pro Bowl. Why should we put a limit on how far he can carry the Steelers? Hell, if he can lead the Steelers to their second championship in three years, he might even get to host "Saturday Night Live," just like Brady and Manning.
But before we start thinking about Studio 8H at the GE Building in Rockefeller Center, we have to think about M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, where the Steelers play the Ravens Dec. 30. No need for scoreboard watching. A win over the Ravens would put the Steelers in the playoffs and give them a home game, and even if Roethlisberger does take the Steelers a long way, he's going to need some help. Najeh Davenport has to keep the chains moving as the Steelers' featured running back. If he can sustain some time-consuming drives, it will be the best tonic for the Steelers' slumping defense. A defense can't give up points when it's off the field.
The Steelers finally started tackling again in the second half Thursday night. After Steven Jackson rang up 65 yards in the first half, he gained just 20 yards on seven carries after intermission. The secondary took a beating. The most infuriating play came when Drew Bennett caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Marc Bulger with three minutes left in the third quarter, cutting the Steelers' lead to 31-24. Bennett caught the ball near the goal line. Anthony Smith was stationed in the end zone and didn't move even when Bennett caught the ball, leaving Deshea Townsend hanging out to dry. Smith finally woke up and put a body on Bennett, but it was too late to keep Bennett out of the end zone. Smith might as well have just been a door man, checking IDs at the goal line before letting receivers in.
Ike Taylor earned the defensive backs a get-out-of-jail-free card when he returned an interception 51 yards for a touchdown to seal the win for the Steelers (Somewhere, Dandy Don Meredith was singing "Turn out the Lights.") It was the second interception for the Steelers. James Farrior intercepted Bulger's Hail Mary at the end of the first half. The defense will have to force more turnovers if the Steelers are going to do anything in the playoffs. They're also going to have to sack the quarterback more. Their first sack in 13 quarters couldn't have come at a better time Thursday night. Leading 31-24, the Steelers went three-and-out. The Rams took over and moved the football. On first-and-10 from the Steelers' 42, Farrior sacked Bulger for a 9-yard-loss. The Rams punted three plays later, and the Steelers ate up 7 minutes, 39 seconds before kicking a field goal to go up 34-24 with 4:38 left.
With only four days between games, there wasn't a lot of time for the Steelers to fix their problems on defense. They have 10 days to make adjustments before facing the Ravens. I also like the prospect of 10 more days for Troy Polamalu to get back to full strength. He's led the team in tackles in both games since returning from his knee injury. I have a feeling he has some game-changing plays in him.
This column might sound way too optimistic for something that's written less than 24 hours after Willie Parker is lost for the season. Some Steelers fans might think I've had a few too many Iron Cities. But at least now we don't have to worry about this Steelers season mirroring the 1998 season, as I mentioned last week. The Steelers looked like a playoff team that year before losing their last five games. The 2007 Steelers showed some character winning on the road in a game in which they lost the NFL's leading rusher for the season.
Now it's looking a little more like the 2002 season, when they had a vulnerable defense but a high-powered offense. That got them a win in the playoffs (a classic comeback against the Browns, could be deja vu) before they lost 37-34 in overtime to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round. Like the 2002 team, this year's Steelers have some glaring flaws. But they also have Roethlisberger.
Dear Santa ...
By Mike Batista
December 17, 2007
Hollywood should love this.
It's a story about a young football player who lets his team down by guaranteeing a victory against a team that could be the best of all time. This young player's words wake up a sleeping giant, firing up the opponent. During the game, this player is targeted and exploited by the opposition and becomes a national punchline as the opposition wins big.
We'll call this player Anthony Smith. I know the character will need a cooler name for the movie. I'll just use that generic name for now.
So the following week, this player's team is losing 22-7 at home. It looks like his team is going to lose at home for the first time all season and suffer its first two-game losing streak of the season. A steady snowfall creates a dramatic effect. Then, all of a sudden, Smith intercepts a pass and returns it 50 yards to set up a touchdown. This sparks a comeback. His team ties the score and wins. The white snowflakes in the background are replaced by these Terrible Towels that the team's fans like to wave, fans who are now looking forward to the playoffs. And none of this would have been possible without Smith going from a goat to a hero. What an inspirational story.
We could call it "The Bigmouth Redemption."
Well, Hollywood rejected my script. So did the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Actually, I didn't make up any of it, except for the, ahem, winning part. This was no happy ending. The Jaguars put the Steelers' playoff berth on hold with a 29-22 win Sunday at Heinz Field. This isn't looking like a storybook season for the Steelers (9-5). This is real life, and the harsh reality is the Steelers' offensive line parts like the Red Sea and their defense can't seem to stop the run anymore. The latter weakness was painfully apparent after the Steelers had come back to tie the score with 5:46 left in the game. Fred Taylor, who gained the most yards by a visiting player at Heinz Field with 147, gouged the Steelers' defense for runs of 9 and 13 yards to fuel the winning drive. Then on third-and-11 from the Steelers' 32, Maurice Jones-Drew, who hung another 69 yards on the Steelers' defense, broke free for 20 yards. Two plays later, Taylor ran it in from 12 yards out for the deciding touchdown with two minutes to go.
The offensive line, which gave up five more sacks Sunday, isn't a new problem. We're pretty much used to seeing Ben Roethlisberger running for his life. But the Steelers not being able to stop the run is like Michael Buffer not being able to say "Let's get ready to rumble!" Whatever weaknesses they've had, we could always count on them to stuff the run. Now, after not allowing a 100-yard rusher for two years, the Steelers have allowed two in the last five games. I knew losing Aaron Smith would hurt, but this much?
If any kind of movie premise works here, it would be a modern-day remake of a horror story in which Taylor slices and dices the Steelers' defense. Taylor also has the opponent record for rushing yards at Three Rivers Stadium. Bill Clinton was still president when Taylor gained 234 yards in a 34-24 Jaguars' win in 2000.
I'm going to go back two more years to find a season that unfolded the way this one might be unfolding. The Steelers looked like a playoff-caliber team in 1998, starting out 7-4. Then they lost five in a row to finish the season 7-9. I had a sinking feeling that season as I watched them lose and slowly realized they weren't good enough to make the playoffs. I'm getting that same feeling this season.
Since beating the Ravens 38-7 on Nov. 5, the Steelers' only convincing win came Dec. 2 by a 24-10 score over the Bengals. There was the dramatic 31-28 win over the Browns, but there was no dramatic win Sunday. It might be entertaining to watch a team come from behind, but repeatedly getting behind in the first place is the sign of a flawed team.
The most humiliating part of Sunday's loss was the Jaguars' 20-play, 74-yard drive to start the second half, which resulted in a touchdown and a 16-7 lead. That's the kind of thing the Steelers are supposed to do, and the Jaguars (10-4) did it right on the Steelers' home turf. The only bright spot for the Steelers these days is Willie Parker, who followed up his 124-yard performance against the Patriots with a 100-yard performance on 14 carries Sunday. Unfortunately, Roethlisberger and Parker are both going to have to play well as the Steelers try to secure that spot in the playoffs. Roethlisberger didn't do his part Sunday, completing just 16 of his 33 passes, although there were some drops.
The Steelers' remaining two games are on the road, where they haven't won since October. They play the Rams (3-11) on Thursday and the Ravens (4-10) on Dec. 30. Even though the Rams suck and the Ravens lost to the previously winless Dolphins, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Steelers lose these two games. It's never easy winning in Baltimore. Meanwhile, the Browns (9-5), who are tied with the Steelers atop the AFC North, are at Cincinnati (5-9) and home to San Francisco (4-10). I don't see the Browns losing either of those games, which means the Steelers pretty much have to win their last two if they want to win the division.
A playoff berth isn't a lock for the Steelers, and it's no time for an Anthony Smith guarantee.
Learning the hard way
By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com travel secretary
December 10, 2007
The whiz-kid luster of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin might be wearing off. It might be time to look past the meteoric trajectory of his career and unearth some of his shortcomings.
Instead of derailing the Patriots' pursuit of perfection Sunday, the Steelers stood and watched as the 2007 Patriots
bullet train whizzed by. The Patriots improved to 13-0 with a 34-13 rout at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
The Steelers still had a pulse early in the fourth quarter. Trailing 31-13, they had a third-and-goal at the Patriots' 1-yard line. A touchdown would have made it a two-score game with more than 13 minutes remaining. But Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone. Then on fourth down, Hines Ward was stopped short on an end around, giving the ball back to the Patriots. The Steelers had two chances to ram the ball in from a yard out and get back in the game, but they got fancy and came away with nothing. Either Tomlin or someone on his staff made those two baffling play calls.
In the second quarter, the Steelers seemingly had the momentum after scoring a touchdown to cut the Patriots' lead to 14-10 and forcing a three-and-out. But William Gay muffed the punt, giving the Patriots the ball at the Steelers' 34-yard line. The Patriots didn't score, but the Steelers still wasted a possession. Coaching has at least something to do with that kind of lapse.
And then there's the good ol' guarantee. You might have heard that Steelers safety Anthony Smith guaranteed a win over the Patriots on Wednesday. Not only that, but he said the Steelers already faced the best receivers in the NFL in the Bengals' Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry, even though Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth loomed.
Smith has played with a lack of discipline and sportsmanship on the field, and he showed a lack of respect for the unbeaten Patriots off it with his guarantee. Tomlin needs to foster a culture in which players are more careful about what they say off the field and, in some cases, what they do on the field.
Tomlin has the potential to be a great coach. Right now, he's still learning.
His counterpart, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, is normally more guarded with his words in press conferences than Fort Knox. But he opened up on Sunday, firing back at Smith after the game, saying "We've played against a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you that."
That's like being scolded by Moses as he holds the Ten Commandments tablet.
And more than one Patriots player, including Tom Brady, verbally rapped Smith on the knuckles with a ruler by referring to this as a lesson learned.
The rain that was forecasted for Sunday night finally began falling at the end of the game, and chants of "Guarantee! Guarantee!" rained down along with it.
The Patriots acted like they weren't fazed by Smith. But we know damn well that in Team Evil's inner sanctum, Smith's words were fueling a motivational bonfire.
Instead of a 27, Smith might as well have had a target on his back. He's one of the reasons why on two Patriots' touchdowns, it looked like the closest Steelers defender was in Providence. Early in the second quarter, he bit hard on Tom Brady's play-action fake, which allowed Moss to break free for a 63-yard touchdown catch to increase the Patriots' lead to 14-3. In the third quarter, Brady lateralled to Moss, who dropped the ball but still had time to lateral across the field back to Brady, who launched a 56-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney. Smith desperately threw his hand up but couldn't knock the ball from its path into Gaffney's arms. That touchdown increased the Patriots' lead to 24-13, and the Steelers never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way.
The Patriots are six wins away from becoming the first NFL team to finish a season 19-0. If they do that, it would be hard to argue against them being the best team ever.
The Steelers? They're a good, but not a great, team.
The Patriots' 21-point margin of victory understates the talent disparity between the teams. The Steelers kept the game close for a half, trailing 17-13 at halftime. But the Patriots could have led by more if they didn't drop a few passes and miss a field goal. Even with butterfingered receivers, however, Brady's greatness couldn't be surpressed. It seemed like he made at least three quarters of his completions a split second before a Steelers pass rusher closed in on him. When the Steelers lost the ball on downs at the Patriots' 1, the Patriots had to take some time off the clock. No running game? No problem. Brady kept the clock going by completing short pass after short pass, dissecting the Steelers' No. 1 pass defense like a surgeon.
As far as the Steelers go, when Najeh Davenport's your biggest deep threat, it's never a good sign. Davenport scored the Steelers' only touchdown when he caught a Roethlisberger pass on a busted play in the second quarter.
For the time being, the Steelers can't look in front of them. They're not close enough to the Patriots and Colts to try to catch up. The Steelers have to look over their shoulder and try to hang onto that No. 3 seed in the playoffs. They have a chance to post perhaps their most impressive victory of the season next week when they host Jacksonville. The Jaguars and Steelers are both 9-4, although as long as the Steelers win the AFC North, the Jaguars can't finish with a higher seed because the Colts have wrapped up the AFC South.
Nonetheless, this will be a good measuring stick for the Steelers because they'll be up against the caliber of team they're likely to face in the first round of the playoffs. Then they'll have a chance to rectify their road woes when they finish the season at St. Louis and at Baltimore.
Beating teams they might see in the playoffs and learning to win on the road is a realistic to-do list for the Steelers. Beating the Patriots is too hard for them right now.
Blast from the past
By Mike Batista
December 7, 2007
"I get knocked down! But I get up again! Ain't nothin' gonna keep me down!"
America was rocking to those lyrics the last time the Steelers won a game in the little hamlet of Foxborough, Mass.
"Tubthumping" by one-hit wonder Chumbawamba was topping the charts right around Dec. 13, 1997, the day that game was played. The Steelers could use those words for inspiration on Sunday.
The Steelers' last win in New England, which came almost exactly 10 years ago (isn't this numerical symmetry scary?), wasn't just any win. They needed a miracle comeback to defeat the Patriots 24-21 in overtime.
The Patriots had the ball near midfield with just over two minutes left leading 21-13. The Steelers had no timeouts. All the Pats needed was a first down, but instead Drew Bledsoe threw a blind pass under heavy pressure into the arms of the Steelers' Kevin Henry, who returned it into Patriots' territory. That set up Kordell Stewart's touchdown pass to Mark Breuener and 2-point conversion pass to Yancey Thigpen. The key play in overtime was 41-yard screen pass to Courtney Hawkins, which set up Norm Johnson's game-winning 31-yard field goal. It was a devastating loss for the Patriots. The headline the next day in the venerable Boston Globe said "Kick in the teeth." I must confess, I "borrowed" that headline for my column on the Steelers' loss to the Jets this season.
Without that dramatic win over the Patriots, the Steelers wouldn't have had home-field advantage when the two teams met again in the AFC divisional playoffs. And the Steelers needed every advantage they could get in that game. Kordell Stewart's 40-yard touchdown run five minutes into the game was all the scoring the Steelers could muster in their 7-6 win. Since then, the Steelers are 1-5 against the Patriots.
A word of caution
The Steelers can spoil the Patriots' pursuit of history on Sunday. On the surface, the Patriots' perfection looks a little shaky. They needed to come from behind in the fourth quarter to beat two middling teams in the Eagles and Ravens. The Steelers, meanwhile, seem to be back in top form, at least on defense, after their win over the Bengals. Conditions seem ripe for a Steelers win on Sunday. Hell, Anthony Smith guarantees it.
But let's not get too optimistic. The Steelers are not a great road team. The only teams they've beaten on the road this season are the Browns and Bengals, and the Browns have improved since they lost to the Steelers in the season opener. The Steelers' offensive line seems to have righted itself after not allowing a sack against the Bengals. But the Bengals rank 30th in the NFL in sacks. The Patriots are tied for eighth. On offense, Willie Parker has averaged just 73 rushing yards over the past three games, and we know the Patriots are going to try to exploit his fumble-itis.
Was I the only Steelers fan who was torn on Monday night? I enjoy a Patriots loss as much as the next guy, but I also kind of wanted the Steelers to get their shot at hanging a big, fat "1" in the Patriots' loss column at Gillette Stadium, especially since I'm going to be at the game. Even if they do that, however, they're probably going to have to beat the Patriots again at Foxborough in the playoffs if they want to win another Super Bowl.
A rivalry renewed
The way I look at it, the more Steelers-Patriots games we see, the better, because this is qualifies as a rivalry. Four of their last nine meetings have come in the playoffs. I can't speak for Pittsburgh, but having lived in New England, if you mention "the 7-6 game," it's understood you're talking about the Steelers' win over the Patriots in the 1997 playoffs.
Steelers fans are all too familiar with the Patriots' two AFC championship game wins at Heinz Field. The first one in 2001 was a shocker, but the second one, in 2004, was no surprise. Ben Roethlisberger looked like a rookie in the Steelers' very lucky win over the Jets in the divisional round, and the Patriots kicked the Colts' ass in Foxborough the next day. I watched the Patriots' game against the Colts on TV, and when the clock struck zero, I said "Shit!" out loud. I knew the Steelers were going down the next week. But the Patriots didn't win their championship without a few nicks and cuts (no, that's not a Gillette Stadium pun, the New England press has beaten those to death) inflicted by the Steelers, who beat them 34-20 at Heinz Field in the regular season to end their NFL record 21-game winning streak.
The other four regular-season games between the teams in the past decade have all had some meaning or drama. On Dec. 6, 1998 (why do these teams always seem to play in early December?), the playoff-bound Patriots beat the Steelers 23-9. The Steelers were in the midst of losing five straight games to finish 7-9. The Patriots christened Gillette Stadium with a 30-14 beating of the Steelers on Monday Night Football to open the 2002 season (I was at that game. I got stuck in an elevator, and I'm kinda sorta claustrophobic. Apparently they were still working out a few kinks in the new stadium. Just further evidence that the Patriots are evil.) There was the Steelers' win over the Patriots in 2004, then there was the Patriots' 24-21 win over the Steelers on a last-minute Adam Vinatieri field goal on Sept. 25, 2005.
A good rivalry also requires a little friction between the two sides, and these teams have that. There was Kordell Stewart talking about hanging out with his buddies in New Orleans before Super Bowl XXXVI. That provided bulletin-board material for the Patriots, just like Smith's guarantee does this week. In the 2005 regular-season game at Heinz Field, Patriots safety Rodney Harrison suffered a season-ending injury. Surly Patriots coach Bill Belichick shooed the Steelers' medical staff off the field when they tried to help out.
A good rivalry also needs a storyline. I give you Mike Vrabel, who has had an impact in both uniforms. He knocked the ball loose from Drew Bledsoe on the Patriots' final drive to help secure a win for the Steelers in "the 7-6 game." But he couldn't get to the Super Bowl with the Steelers. He's been there all three times with the Patriots. The Steelers made a huge mistake letting him go.
A good rivalry doesn't quite need a conspiracy theory. But I'm going to submit one anyway. In 2005, the Patriots finished the regular season with a loss at home to the Dolphins. They weren't going full tilt, even though they could have had the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. They ended up with the No. 4 seed and hosted Jacksonville, probably the worst 12-4 team of all-time. The Patriots beat them easily in a wild-card game. Had they been the No. 3 seed, they would have hosted the Steelers. The Steelers had to win the last four games of the regular season just to make the playoffs, and they won all of them convincingly. Was Belichick trying to duck the Steelers? Belichick might be the NFL's most reviled villain, but he's also a football genius. Perhaps he saw the Steelers' run to the Super Bowl coming. Just a thought.
The only thing that would have made the Steelers' 2005 championship any sweeter is if they knocked out the Patriots along the way. The Steelers can take the cherry off the sundae of a potential Patriots championship by winning on Sunday at the House of Evil. If the Patriots lose to the Steelers but still win the Super Bowl, they'd be just another Super Bowl champion and have to take their place in line with all the other teams in the "greatest of all-time" debate.
That doesn't mean I'm conceding the Lombardi Trophy to Team Evil. Yes, the Patriots are the favorites to win the Super Bowl, and they're favored to win Sunday. The Steelers are underdogs. The Patriots have denied the Steelers two Super Bowl berths, with perhaps a little espionage involved. Now it's time for the Steelers to deny the Patriots their coveted 19-0 record.
If that's not enough to get you fired up, then it's time to blast some Chumbawamba.
By Mike Batista
December 4, 2007
(Editor's note: Loyal and dedicated Steelahs.com readers will notice that this week's column is a little shorter than my other game columns. That's because I want to devote most of my time and energy this week to writing a lookahead to Sunday's game against the Patriots. I will have that up later in the week. Stay tuned!)
Just in time for Christmas, the Steelers have some teams on their schedule that I hate. It gets me in the holiday spirit.
It goes without saying that the Patriots are evil. But the Bengals, who were defeated 24-10 by the Steelers on Sunday night, have earned a lot of Steelers Nation hate points over the years as well.
The only positive thing I have to say about the Bengals is that Carson Palmer didn't blame Kimo von Oehlhoffen for injuring his knee on that infamous play during the Steelers' win over the Bengals in the 2005 playoffs. But my credit for Palmer and the Bengals ends there.
During the offseason after the Steelers won the Super Bowl, the Bengals just kind of assumed that they were on the cusp of that same kind of glory, that their day was coming. It seemed to me that they felt they deserved a championship after suffering the heartbreak of Palmer's knee injury in the 2005 playoffs.
Hasn't quite happened that way.
The Steelers' win over the Bengals at the end of last season was probably their sweetest non-playoff victory that I can remember. It felt so great to watch Santonio Holmes score that overtime touchdown to foil the Bengals' chance to make the playoffs.
And this season, the Bengals are in the Steelers' rear-view mirror. The Steelers are likely to move on to bigger and better things this season while the Bengals are due for a day of reckoning.
My hatred of the Bengals doesn't begin with Palmer and the 2005 playoff game. One of my earliest childhood memories as a Steelers fan is seeing Bengals players, with their new tiger-stripe helmets, whooping it up at Three Rivers Stadium after clinching the AFC Central in 1981. The Steelers, two years removed from their fourth Super Bowl title, finished 8-8 that year. The glory days were over.
The Steelers can forge a new era of glory now. A win like Sunday's is just what the doctor ordered.
The Steelers needed some momentum heading into Sunday's showdown against the unbeaten Patriots. After their manhandling of the Ravens on Nov. 5, the Steelers went 2-1, with neither win very convincing. But on Sunday, everything came together. The secondary looked very imposing, the offensive line didn't allow a sack, and special teams actually made a positive impact. The Steelers are still committing too many penalties, and Willie Parker needs to hold onto the football, but I'm thinking that maybe half of his 77 fumbles could be attributed to the wetness. I hope it doesn't rain Sunday in New England.
Actually, I wouldn't mind some crappy weather. That might keep some of the other standing-room ticket holders away from Gillette Stadium and give me a better view!
By Mike Batista
November 28, 2007
The only thing missing at Heinz Field on Monday night were animals marching two-by-two into an ark.
Considering the biblical conditions in which the Steelers and Dolphins played, it’s only fitting that this game adds another layer to historical and numerological parallels that go back a quarter century.
With rain falling on a new sheet of turf that was placed on top of the old turf, the water had nowhere to go. That made for a marsh-like playing surface that neutralized the talent disparity between the Steelers and winless Dolphins. Neither team came close to scoring until Jeff Reed kicked a 24-yard field goal with 17 seconds left to give the Steelers a 3-0 win.
Because football wasn’t meant to be played in water, there wasn’t much to take from this game between the white lines. Actually, there were no white lines because the rain just about washed them away. The Steelers’ win literally wasn’t much more than a forfeit. If the Dolphins had forfeited, the score would have been 2-0.
The statistics from this game aren’t very impressive. There’s another set of numbers that are much more compelling. These numbers signify how bad weather has linked these two proud franchises.
In the hours after Monday night’s game, clips were shown of two previous matchups between the Steelers (8-3) and Dolphins (0-11) in inclement weather. Before I get into those games, I’m going to turn the clock back a little further.
First, let me say this. If anyone thinks the Steelers stole Monday night’s win, I swear Mark Henderson was nowhere near the area.
Who is Mark Henderson? For those of you who don’t know, here’s history lesson No. 1.
On Dec. 12, 1982, the Dolphins played the Patriots (before the Patriots became evil) in a blizzard at Foxborough, Mass. On a snow-covered field, the game was scoreless with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter.
Sounds like a game we saw recently.
The Patriots were setting up to attempt a 33-yard field goal when coach Ron Meyer summoned Henderson, who was on prison work release at what was then known as Schaefer Stadium. Driving a John Deere tractor with a sweeping device attached, Henderson cleared the area where John Smith attempted his field goal. Smith’s kick was good, and the Patriots won 3-0. Dolphins coach Don Shula raised holy hell (a quarter century later, it seems Shula has another bone to pick with the Patriots). The next year, the NFL banned such snow-removal practices.
On Monday night, 16 days short of the 25th anniversary of what is known as the Snowplow Game, the Dolphins again lost by a 3-0 score. But instead of the Patriots beating them, it was the Steelers. And instead of snow covering the field, it was water. And instead of playing in a stadium named after beer, they played in a stadium named after ketchup.
The Steelers didn’t need Henderson Monday night. But that doesn’t mean their win was without a little malfeasance. Before Reed’s kick, holder Daniel Sepulveda tried to dry the area with a towel. An official yanked the towel away.
Hopefully, this won’t become known as the Towel Game in years to come.
Since suffering the indignity of the Snowplow Game, there have been a couple of occasions when the Dolphins have been a prop as the Steelers forge turning points in franchise history. And the South Florida rain has served as the backdrop.
On Nov. 26, 1989, exactly 18 years before Monday night’s win, the Steelers beat the Dolphins 34-14 in a rainstorm (I hope everyone caught a glimpse Tim Worley’s flattop ’do when ESPN showed a clip of that game Monday night). That victory launched an improbable run. The Steelers went on to win three of their last four to make the playoffs. They upset the Houston Oilers in the wild card and lost by a point at Denver in the divisional round. That 1989 Steelers squad, which finished the regular season with a 9-7 record, might have been the least talented team to make it that far into the playoffs. But that rag-tag bunch will always hold a special place in Steelers history. It was also the last time Chuck Noll made the playoffs.
On Sept. 26, 2004 (again, the 26th of the month), in the remnants of Hurricane Jeanne, Ben Roethlisberger made his first career start. A week after replacing Tommy Maddox in a loss at Baltimore, Roethlisberger went 12 for 22 with a touchdown and an interception. It was good enough for a 13-3 win over the Dolphins. There wasn’t much fanfare, but the Big Ben Era had begun.
Nine of Roethlisberger’s 12 completions, including the touchdown, went to Hines Ward on that rainy night in 2004. On Monday night, nine of Roethlisberger’s 18 completions went to Ward. Three of those catches, for a total of 38 yards, came on the game-winning drive. Roethlisberger and Ward, two proven winners, emerged from the quagmire to set up Reed’s kick and tilt the scrum the Steelers’ way.
So we can salvage some items from this flood if we want to assess the Steelers’ performance. First the bad news. Roethlisberger was sacked five more times by a defensive unit that entered the game with just 12 sacks. On the bright side, there was the clutch play of Roethlisberger and Ward in the final minutes. And there was the fact that they won without Santonio Holmes and Troy Polamalu, among other obstacles.
What it comes down to is the Steelers found a way to win, and if history is any indication, the rest of the season should be fun.
Kick in the teeth
By Mike Batista
November 19, 2007
The only consolation I can take from the Steelers’ stunning 19-16, overtime loss to the Jets on Sunday is that is I can officially trade in my guilt about the Steelers’ win over the Jets in the 2004 AFC divisional playoffs. That was a game the Steelers probably shouldn’t have won. And they wouldn’t have if Jets kicker Doug Brien didn’t miss two field goals in the final two minutes of regulation before the Steelers won it 20-17 in overtime.
What goes around comes around. The Steelers organization did their penance Sunday for that lucky playoff win.
I’d rather have the guilt.
Of the Steelers’ three losses this season, this one bothers me the most, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.
The loss in Arizona was their first. They weren’t going to go 16-0. Plus Ken Whisenhunt probably had some inside info on how to beat the Steelers. The loss in Denver could be attributed to the high altitude and the fact that Denver is always a tough place to play.
There’s no way to rationalize this loss.
The Steelers were beaten by a 1-8 team, a team whose only win came against the winless Dolphins. Not only that, but the Steelers had the game well in hand until their offensive line let them down again.
They had a three-point lead and the ball near midfield with less than three minutes left. All they needed was two more yards for a new set of downs. But on third down, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked for the sixth time, forcing a punt. The Jets took the ball and tied the score to force overtime.
The Jets’ final sack came in OT, where field position is precious. It dragged the Steelers back to their own 14. That’s 11 sacks in the past two games. This might be the worst offensive line I’ve witnessed as a Steelers fan. Even during the mediocre 1980s, the Steelers had solid offensive lines.
The O-Line wasn’t the Steelers’ only glaring weakness entering the game. There was also their kickoff coverage. But instead of trying to improve it they basically waved the white flag on it by kicking the ball short to keep it out of the hands of return man Leon Washington. Daniel Sepulveda, until Sunday one of the few bright spots on special teams this season, was the culprit in overtime on Sunday. His punt from the Steelers’ 20 was a subpar 39-yarder to Washington, who returned it 33 yards to the Steelers’ 26 and right into field goal position for Mike Nugent, who won it with a 38-yard kick.
I was afraid of this. I warned of the potential for a pitfall in the blog that accompanies my weekly columns on this site. I was worried for the wrong reason, however. I thought the Jets would be inspired by the Curtis Martin ceremonies at halftime. But they didn’t need a former running back to provide motivation. They had a perfectly good one in uniform in Thomas Jones. Or at least the Steelers made him look like a good running back. The Steelers forgot how to tackle and allowed a runner to gain 100 yards in a game for the first time since Edgerrin James did it for the Colts in 2005.
I can’t help but think of something once said by Bill Parcells, who presented Martin during the halftime activities. He said you are what you are. On one hand, if it weren’t for two game-ending field goals this season, the Steelers would be 9-1. But the fact of the matter is the Steelers aren’t good enough to be 9-1. They’re a 7-3 team for a reason.
Before the start of the season, I’d have taken 7-3 after 10 games. But here the Steelers are, 7-3, and I’m not feeling all that great about it. A team that was on the fringe of being mentioned in the same conversation as the Patriots and Colts earlier in the season now faces some legitimate questions, with the biggest being the offensive line.
Making Jones (30 carries, 117 yards) look like he was coated with Teflon and committing eight penalties for 100 yards didn’t help. But this loss is on the offensive line. It’s hard for the Steelers to close the deal on a victory with Roethlisberger on his back. Up 16-13 with eight minutes left in the game, they could have wrapped it up after Deshea Townsend’s interception and return to the Jets’ 45. But the Steelers turned it over three plays later when a sack on Roethlisberger jarred the ball loose.
Townsend’s performance, by the way, makes the Steelers’ loss hurt just a little bit more. The 10-year veteran cornerback also broke up a pass to force a punt on the Jets’ first possession of overtime. That's one guy who didn't deserve to lose. On the other side, Ike Taylor earned his money by covering Brad Smith like a blanket in the end zone on the Jets’ last possession of regulation.
Yeah, there was the flea flicker to Laveranues Coles early in the game to set up a Jets touchdown. But that was the only Jets' touchdown. The Steelers should have been able to overcome that. I never thought there would be a day when the Steelers’ secondary was doing everything it could to keep the Steelers in the game while the offensive line was blowing it.
It’s quite likely that in the next two weeks, the Steelers’ problems will be swept under the rug. They have Miami (0-10) and Cincinnati (3-7) at home before going on the road to face the Patriots.
I was really looking forward to going to Gillette Stadium on Dec. 9 to see the Steelers take a shot at foiling the Patriots’ perfect season. But now it just looks like I’ll be freezing my ass off while watching the Steelers lose. The Steelers on Sunday didn’t look like a team that can beat the Patriots, or any other team they might see in the playoffs, for that matter.
Brownies no cupcakes
By Mike Batista
November 12, 2007
OK, there’s no arguing that the Steelers are a damn good team. But the Men of Steel might need an iron-fisted substitute teacher to keep them in line.
They showed Sunday that they’re not quite good enough or mature enough to be on their own. That is, without me watching them.
I did not see the first 24 minutes or so of Sunday’s 31-28 win over the Browns. For me, it was the first unwatched Steelers football of the season.
When I arrived at Dave & Buster’s in Providence, R.I., to watch, the Steelers were trailing 14-6 in the second quarter. Then the Browns won a challenge, which meant Derek Anderson completed a 16-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards and Cleveland had a 21-6 lead with 6:23 to go in the first half. Great.
It was time for the young men in black and gold to buckle down. It was like the Steelers were kids goofing off in a classroom without a teacher, then their “Ssshhh! Ssshhh! Here he comes!” moment came when I showed up.
Of course, the Steelers’ behavior didn’t improve right away. They did start their ensuing drive with two straight penalties. But the defense didn’t allow any more points in the game and just one more first down. And what unfolded was, in terms of suspense, the most entertaining Steelers game of the season so far.
We learned two things on Sunday. The Browns (5-4) are for real and the Steelers (7-2) can win a close game.
The Steelers won by less than 11 points for the first time this season, and they did it in thrilling fashion – with a little Big Ben-Hines Ward man love thrown in at the end.
The Steelers started on the comeback trail with a field goal just before halftime to make the score 21-9. But the Browns hung tough on defense early in the second half until a crucial element in the anatomy of a comeback – the turnover – materialized for the Steelers.
Overnight star James Harrison knocked the ball loose from longtime Steelers tormentor Jamal Lewis. Ike Taylor picked up the fumble to give the Steelers the ball at the Browns’ 38. Four plays later, Ben Roethlisberger found Ward for a 12-yard touchdown, and the Steelers were within 21-16.
Harrison, by the way, forced another fumble before I started watching. The ‘A’ student brought his ‘A’ game. Unlike his classmates, he wasn’t screwing around in the first half.
The Steelers’ first drive of the fourth quarter included a false-start penalty and a dropped pass by rookie tight end Matt Spaeth, which brought on a third-and-10 from the Browns’ 30. But just when it looked like the Steelers’ momentum was going to fizzle out, Roethlisberger made like … oh, I just can’t say his name … and scrambled 30 yards for a touchdown. He then completed the 2-point conversion to Ward to give the Steelers a 24-21 lead.
Then my young pupils let me down again. This time, it was in the schoolyard, or it least it looked like a schoolyard play when the Browns’ Josh Cribbs ran the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. He fumbled the kickoff and picked it up at the Browns’ 1-yard line, dodged a few black and gold jerseys, deftly waited for a few teammates to get in front of him, then did his best C.W. McCall and rode the convoy of blockers to the end zone.
Come to find out Cribbs returned a kickoff 90 yards to set up the Browns’ second touchdown at the end of the first quarter. These special teams gaffes (not to mention Mike Tomlin’s challenge on Cribbs’ TD. I heard Tomlin has challenged Ronald Reagan’s win over Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election) underscored one of two Steelers weaknesses on display in front of a national audience Sunday. The other weakness was pass protection. The Browns sacked Roethlisberger four times Sunday. They came into the game with just seven sacks. Roethlisberger’s wizardry out of the pocket in last week’s rout of the Ravens masked the offensive line’s mediocrity. Sunday’s dramatic win masked it again. But like kickoff coverage, pass protection is a subject the Steelers are failing.
With the Steelers down 28-24 and momentum no longer on their side, Roethlisberger went to work, and he didn’t cram. This was an 8-minute drive that gave the Steelers the lead with 3:13 left in the game.
The game-winning sequence started out with a pair of 2-yard runs by Willie Parker, who did just the opposite of everyone else. He was great when I wasn’t watching, then didn’t do shit when I was. I wished he would break one so that Roethlisberger wouldn’t have to keep passing the ball. All that passing made me nervous. Then I remembered there was a reason why I didn’t invoke the name of … Kordell Stewart. There, I said it! … when Roethlisberger ran 30 yards for the TD. It’s because he’s nothing like Stewart. He’s in the green room in the studio of elite quarterbacks. He actually can perform in the clutch. Like on third-and-18 from the Browns’ 33 with 6:21 left, right after being sacked for an 11-yard loss, he found Heath “Hands of God” Miller for a 20-yard gain.
Then Parker showed why he should stick to running the ball when he tried a halfback option pass, and Najeh Davenport showed why he’s no Jerome Bettis (off the field, too, apparently) when he was stonewalled for no gain at the 2-yard line. But in between those clunkers, Roethlisberger was faced with a third-and-9 from the 12, and ran it to the 2. After Davenport’s carry, Roethlisberger found the Hands of God for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Browns challenged the catch and lost. That burned a timeout. One more timeout might have given the Browns a chance to pick up a few more yards, which would have given Phil Dawson an easier shot at tying the game. At Heinz Field, 52 yards just ain’t happenin’. Dawson’s attempt fell just short of the crossbar, and Roethlisberger and Ward giddily rolled around on the Heinz Field turf to celebrate. Hey, class was over. They could horse around all they wanted. Besides, a little man love is kind of cool when the Steelers win.
They got the Jets next week. Yeah, the Jets suck. But the Steelers better not look at this game as recess. I might not be able to watch the game live, but I’m going to DVR it. So one way or another, I’ll be watching. So no slacking off, Steelers.
Making his mark
By Mike Batista
November 6, 2007
(Editor's note: I'm doing my part to honor the Steelers' 75th anniversary by writing exactly 750 words about Monday night's win over the Ravens. That doesn't count the words in these parentheses, of course. Happy reading.)
Ben Roethlisberger can finally be mentioned in the same sentence as Mark Malone.
And Terry Bradshaw, too.
On Monday night, Roethlisberger tied Bradshaw and Malone for the single-game team record with five touchdown passes in the Steelers’ 38-7 plucking of the Baltimore Ravens.
Roethlisberger and Tom Brady are the only quarterbacks to throw five TD passes in a game this season. But let’s not mention Roethlisberger in the same breath as Brady or Peyton Manning just yet. Brady and Manning would have found a way to win the games in Arizona and Denver.
There is one department, however, where Roethlisberger belongs in the same class as Brady and Manning: Acting. He’s the first Super Bowl-winning quarterback since Brad Johnson not to host “Saturday Night Live.” But let me tell you, Roethlisberger is a Ready for Prime Time Player.
With the Steelers blowing out the Ravens in the third quarter, the national TV audience was dwindling by the minute. But Roethlisberger added some suspense. He forced Steelers fans across the Nation to drop their remotes by writhing in pain after being pushed to the ground by the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs. Way to keep the ratings up. This exaggeration of injuries is one of the few faults I can find with Roethlisberger’s performance. Halloween’s over, Ben. Stop scaring us!
After shaking it off, Roethlisberger made like Willis Reed and came back into the game for a series. Clinging to a 28-point lead in the fourth quarter, it was just the emotional lift the Steelers needed.
Of Roethlisberger’s five touchdown passes, the most clutch came early in the second quarter. He rolled out of the pocket and found Nate Washington in his own area code in the end zone for a 30-yard TD pass. It gave the Steelers a 21-0 lead, but more importantly, it got the image of Bradshaw’s ass out of my head.
Bradshaw had just joined Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser in the ESPN booth, and I couldn’t help but think of the scene in “Failure to Launch” in which Bradshaw’s … uuuhhh, backfield … was exposed. Fortunately, Roethlisberger avoided the pressure long enough for Washington to break free, and I was back in my happy place.
Bradshaw was at Heinz Field as part of the Steelers’ 75th anniversary celebration. He must have just edged out Mark Malone as the Steelers’ all-time quarterback. But the Steelers’ 75th birthday party wasn’t the only party going on Monday night. James Harrison had his coming out party. His performance made a lot of people forget another member of that 75th anniversary team – Joey Porter.
At right outside linebacker, Harrison has been assigned the task of filling Porter’s shoes. In his final season with the Steelers, Porter had 55 tackles and seven sacks. Through the halfway point of this season, Harrison has 52 tackles and six sacks. On Monday, he had 3½ sacks, nine tackles, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. He almost single-handedly made the Ravens look like a college homecoming opponent on this ceremonious night. (I’d have used the homecoming angle higher up in the story, but friggin’ Kornheiser made that analogy during the game. I’m not pardoning that interruption.) Harrison became the first NFL player since 1982 (when sacks were first kept as an official statistic) to have 3½ sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery in the same game.
Right behind Harrison with seven tackles and a forced fumble was Troy Polamalu, who hadn’t been much of a factor lately. It was nice to see those locks flying around a little bit more. And let’s not forget Lawrence Timmons (remember that name) recovering Ed Reed’s popup fumble on special teams. Keep paying your dues, Lawrence.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Steelers’ dismantling of the Ravens is the fact that Willie Parker gained just 43 yards on 24 carries. But 5-foot-10, 209-pounder made his presence felt in another way by blocking Big Bad Ray Lewis on the Steelers’ second touchdown, a 15-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes.
Hines Ward was his typical self, grinning from ear to ear while using his body as a human projectile to throw blocks all over the field. How does it feel, Bart Scott?
Steelers kicker Jeff Reed even got into a jawing match with a Ravens’ player.
After being outscored by them 58-7 in two games last season, the Steelers weren’t taking shit from anyone in purple and white on Monday night.
Somewhere, Mark Malone is smiling.
to the bar
By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com surgeon general
October 29, 2007
I am the Ben Roethlisberger of the blogosphere.
Two days after having surgery to repair an umbilical hernia, I was at Sports Page in White Plains, NY, rooting for the Steelers and feverishly jotting down notes for this column during the Steelers’ 24-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Hopefully my performance in this column will be better than Roethlisberger’s last season when he came back to play in Jacksonville 10 days after an appendectomy. Thank God for spell check. Too bad there isn’t an interception check for quarterbacks that can stop a bad pass in mid-air and put it back in the quarterback’s hand. Roethlisberger could have used that function on Sunday.
No doubt Roethlisberger’s come a long way from his disastrous 2006 season. What a lot of people forget, however, is that his slide didn’t necessarily start with the motorcycle crash. It started in Super Bowl XL, despite the Steelers’ victory. Unfortunately, Roethlisberger failed to learn a lesson from that game. The Steelers led the Bengals, 21-6 in the third quarter and had a chance to put the game away. They had the ball on third-and-7 at the Bengals’ 11. Then Roethlisberger showed his Favre-like tendencies. Under pressure and with nowhere to throw the ball, he chucked it into the arms of the Bengals’ Deltha O’Neal, and the Bengals drove 88 yards to pull within 21-13 with 13 minutes left in the game.
It was almost a mirror image of a situation in Super Bowl XL, when the Steelers led the Seahawks 14-3 and were deep in Seattle territory in the third quarter. Roethlisberger threw a pass toward the goal line that was snatched by Kelly Herndon. He returned it to the Steelers’ 20, the Seahawks eventually scored a touchdown and were back in the game. Oooh, an eerie parallel just in time for Halloween. Spooky.
Well, the most important parallel is that the Steelers won Super Bowl XL and they won Sunday. Roethlisberger went 19 for 26 against the Bengals with two touchdown passes and that one interception. This is a damn good quarterback. He’s deft at avoiding the pass rush and succeeds most of the time when he’s trying to make something out of nothing, like when he had his foot in the grasp of a Bengals defender but still completed a first-down pass to Santonio Holmes to set up a touchdown.
I hope I can bounce back like Roethlisberger. What? Do I hear some of you saying that despite cheering on the Steelers 48 hours after my surgery, I’m not worthy of calling myself the Ben Roethlisberger of the blogosphere? So I didn’t have 300-pound guys running at me trying to hit me in the belly button. Let me tell you, I was out there despite not being at full strength as a fan.
The place where I ate brunch Sunday was halfway between home and the bar. After eating, I needed a pen to take notes during the game and some Tylenol to ease the pain in my belly button, and both of those were at home. I wasn’t in shape to drive yet, and I couldn’t walk home and double back to the bar in time for kickoff.
If it wasn’t for a last-minute trip to the gas station across the street from the bar, this column might not have been possible. I found the Tylenol no problem, but there were no pens on sale at the cell-block-like convenience store at the gas station.
Fortunately, the guy behind the counter at the store let me have a pen. I was good to go. Across the street I went. In the bathroom, I went to the sink, cupped my hands to hold water (just like on “Survivor”), took my pills and was ready to watch the Steelers.
Of course, the biggest casualty of my compromised condition was the fact that I was only able to drink one beer during the game. I usually have about one per quarter. Maybe the best thing about doing this Web site is that I’m drinking less when I watch the Steelers.
Unlike last week, however, the Steelers didn’t drive me to drink despite the imperfect performance. There’s no downplaying any win on the road against a division opponent. But the Steelers wouldn’t have beaten a decent team playing like that. They had virtually no pass rush. Carson Palmer wasn’t sacked. He might as well have had velvet ropes around him. They’ve had just two sacks in the past two games. The defense had a little bit of a problem getting off the field on third down. The Bengals converted 6 of 11 third-down opportunities. They’d have converted one more if a pass interference penalty was called against safety Anthony Smith, who did interfere with T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the end zone in the first quarter. After that third-and-10 play from the Steelers’ 13, the Bengals settled for a field goal to make it 3-0 just over four minutes into the game.
It always helps, too, when the Bengals show why they’re called the Bungles. On the Steelers’ first touchdown, a 21-yard pass to Hines Ward (another reminder of Super Bowl XL, we again learned to really appreciate the value of Ward), Cincinnati only had 10 players on the field. Then after Roethlisberger’s interception in the third quarter, the Bengals were on their own 30 when Palmer threw deep to Chad Johnson. Ocho-Stinko had the ball in his breadbasket but couldn’t hold on. The Bengals scored on that drive anyway, but they might have had more time to work with if Johnson had caught the ball.
The Patriots and Colts of the world aren’t going to leave 10 men on the field and drop passes like that. The reality is that the Steelers have some work to do to join the ranks of the NFL elite. They’re certainly not going to knock off a team like the Patriots or Colts if Mike Tomlin keeps wasting timeouts with ridiculous challenges. I hear Tomlin just threw the red flag because he wants to review whether or not the Earth is round.
There I go again, finding things to bitch about even in good times. My normal excuse for that is to say that it’s the Red Sox fan in me. But the Red Sox just won their second World Series in four years. There should be no more sky-is-falling mentality in the culture of Red Sox Nation. Maybe I won’t really be happy until I see the Steelers win the Super Bowl again.
But it’s only October. World Series are won in October, not Super Bowls.
By Mike Batista
October 8, 2007
We’ve all got our switches, lights and knobs to deal with, Striker.
That line from Buck Murdock, played by William Shatner in “Airplane II,” sums up my mental state in the days leading up to Sunday’s game and for most of the first half. Murdock had his switches, lights and knobs to deal with, and the Steelers, like any NFL team, had their injuries to deal with.
The Steelers were without Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton. They were coming off a loss. They were playing a decent Seahawks team coached by a guy who, no matter how much he said he was over it, had to be motivated by his team’s perceived shafting in Super Bowl XL.
Then, when the Steelers faced their first third down of the game, I see Santonio Holmes on the sidelines. He was hurt, too. Great. The Steelers were without their two best receivers, and the game stayed scoreless for most of the first half. The game could have gone either way for a while there. The Steelers were one special teams gaffe away from losing their second straight game heading into the bye week. That would turn them into just an … average … team …
They’re beeping! They’re flashing!! They’re flashing!!!
I’m all right. I’m all right.
It turns out the Steelers are dealing with their switches, lights and knobs quite well. Some of their healthy starters cranked up their games and some new faces emerged in a 21-0 win over the Seahawks at Heinz Field.
These two teams don’t exactly weave football masterpieces together. Unless you’re a Steelers or Seahawks fan, Super Bowl XL won’t make your list of the most memorable Super Bowls. The Steelers and Seahawks locked horns in a similar scrum on Sunday. Neither team had any momentum in the first quarter. It was the type of game where one big play or one big mistake could make all the difference.
I thought that big play came when Willie Reid, who hasn’t even dressed for every game this season, caught a 25-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to get the Steelers out of the shadow of their own goal posts to the 33. But it was a false alarm. The Steelers eventually had to punt from their own 40.
The real game-changing play came from Najeh Davenport, who might have had his best game as a Steeler. On second-and-18 from the Steelers’ 35, the Steelers’ big back ran 45 yards to the Seattle 20. Three plays later, Roethlisberger threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to his best buddy, Heath Miller, to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead late in the first half.
The Steelers had the ball on the opening drive of the second half, and it looked like the officials were trying for some make-up calls a year and a half after Super Bowl XL. They called three penalties against the Steelers. But those penalties didn’t really help the Seahawks. All they did was keep the Seattle defense roasting in the globally-warmed October weather. The Steelers held the ball for 10 minutes, 17 seconds before Davenport scored from a yard out to make it 14-0. That came two plays after the zebras even correctly reversed a touchdown on a Seattle challenge when Willie Parker ran it in from the 20.
The Steelers let the Seahawks have the ball for a minute and 31 seconds before taking over and putting the game away. Davenport scored his second touchdown on a five-yard run. The former Packer gained 58 yards on seven carries and caught four passes for 38 yards. Because the Steelers had possession for more than 40 minutes in the game, Davenport was able to have his coming-out party while Willie Parker gained more than 100 yards for the fourth time this season. He had 102 yards on 28 carries. Roethlisberger completed 18 of 22 passes. His leading receiver was Cedrick Wilson with five catches. Nate Washington, who I dubbed Butterfingers Washington last week even though that note didn’t make my column, caught three passes and threw a key block on Davenport’s 45-yard run that set up the first score. Wilson and Washington did their job holding the fort for Ward and Holmes.
It was the first shutout win for the Steelers since Dec. 24, 2005, when they beat the Browns 41-0 in Cleveland. Of course, you could say that 11 drunk tailgaters could shut out the Seahawks if they’re playing defense for less than 20 minutes. But the shutout wouldn’t have happened without Ike Taylor, who redeemed himself after getting burned by Larry Fitzgerald last week and committing a costly penalty. On Sunday, he broke up a couple of deep passes, one intended for Ben Obomanu and the other intended for old tormentor Deion Branch, who torched the Steelers in the 2004 AFC championship game when he was with the Patriots. My switches, lights and knobs panic briefly resurfaced when I remembered Branch was with the Seahawks, but he didn’t stay in the game long. He was carted off with an injury. Then Taylor turned into a hybrid between cornerback and goalie when he intercepted a pass intended for Obomanu at the goal line to end the first half. The interception protected the Steelers’ 7-0 lead and eventually the hard-earned shutout. It’s nice to see Taylor earn his hefty paycheck.
It’s also nice to see the Steelers have a bye week. Hopefully they can get healthy. Then on Oct. 21, the Steelers are at Denver, where it’s usually tough for a visiting team to win. But if the Chargers can beat the Broncos 41-3 in Denver, so can the Steelers. You know why? Because the Steelers are better than the Chargers. They weren’t last year. But this year, the Chargers and the Broncos have fallen off the tightrope of NFL parity, which is what happened to the Steelers last year.
I think we’re finding out that last season’s 8-8 record, and not the championship season, was the fluke. Looking at the schedule at the beginning of the season, a 4-1 record going into the bye week is no disappointment, especially with all the injuries. No need to worry about switches, lights and knobs with these guys. They’re bouncing back like Ted Striker.
Happy bye week!
By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com executive producer
October 1, 2007
Yes, the Steelers lost on Sunday, but all they lost was a game.
At least they didn’t lose more players to the Arizona Cardinals.
Since being named head coach of the Cardinals in January, former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has brought to the desert special-teams ace Sean Morey, punter Mike Barr and center Chukky Okobi, not to mention offensive line coach Russ Grimm. They joined former Steelers Rodney Bailey, a defensive end, and Oliver Ross, an offensive lineman.
As far as I know, everyone who entered University of Phoenix Stadium in a Steelers uniform safely boarded the plane back to Pittsburgh Sunday night after the Cardinals’ 21-14 win. Alan Faneca, however, was rumored to be seen checking out home listings in the Arizona Republic.
A few of these former Steelers employees might have had an ax (or a cactus) to grind. Especially Grimm.
During a chaotic Saturday night in January, there were conflicting reports about who was named the new Steelers head coach. One media outlet reported it was Grimm, the other reported it was Tomlin. It appeared as though Grimm somehow thought he got the job. But Tomlin was the Steelers’ man.
Okobi (who was inactive Sunday) was the heir apparent to the retired Jeff Hartings at center – until the Steelers signed Sean Mahan to five-year, $17 million contract. Okobi eventually was cut and picked up by the Cards.
Any shot Barr had at succeeding Chris Gardocki at punter was steamrolled when the Steelers drafted Daniel Sepulveda.
As far as Whisenhunt goes, he didn’t wait around for the Steelers to make a decision. He already had the Cardinals’ job by the time all that Saturday-night silliness happened. But I doubt Arizona was his first choice, and he was kind of regarded as the front-runner when the hiring process started.
So there were a few people who had this game circled the minute the schedule came out in April. Whisenhunt did a good job keeping his game face on in the final minutes. You know damn well the second he got into the locker room he giggled like a kid after sticking it to the Rooneys.
But this doesn’t mean the Steelers (3-1) hired the wrong guy. I have a feeling Whisenhunt will be playing golf a lot sooner than Tomlin will this winter (OK, if you’re really a hard-core Steelers fan, you got me on that one because you know that Tomlin doesn’t play golf. But hey, at least it sounds cool to say.) Tomlin might have brought in a new system, but the players stayed the same. And the gang of Spurned Steelers was well aware of those players’ tendencies.
Their knowledge of Hines Ward’s tendencies was useless since he didn’t play because of a knee sprain. At first, I wasn’t too worried about Ward being out because Ben Roethlisberger has so many people who can catch the ball. But the Cardinals shut down Willie Parker, which put a lot of pressure on the passing game.
Roethlisberger could have used Ward’s reliable hands. Ward’s absence made Roethlisberger even more locked in on Heath Miller, and the Cards had that all figured out when Adrian Wilson intercepted Roethlisberger’s pass to Miller in the end zone late in the third quarter.
Troy Polamalu’s abdominal injury was another factor in this one. After a slow start to his season, the safety led the Steelers with five tackles and three assisted tackles against the 49ers. Then in the first half on Sunday, he was back to his old pinballing self, bouncing all over the field. He had two tackles, forced a fumble, recovered another fumble and returned it 13 yards. But he didn’t play in the second half. CBS showed Polamalu on the sideline with his helmet off about 87 times, as if we couldn’t figure out he was hurt the first 86 times they showed him. Anyway, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Cardinals scored all 21 of their points in the second half, with Polamalu off the field.
I had a bad feeling when Kurt Warner replaced Matt Leinart with just under five minutes left in the first half. Polamalu eased my fears with his fumble recovery, but there was nothing he could do on the Cardinals’ opening drive of the second half, when Warner completed a bunch of quick slant passes to negate the Steelers’ blitz, just like Matt Hasselbeck did early in Super Bowl XL. That nine-play, 70-yard drive, which ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Jerheme Urban, tied the score 7-7.
Credit the Cardinals (2-2) for being good enough to take advantage of Polamalu’s absence. This is an up-and-coming team. The season’s still young, but the Cards are unbeaten at home, and they’ve played everyone tough. All of their games have come down to the final minute. Whisenhunt has them doing things the right way in the desert.
When you combine the Cardinals’ motivation for this particular game, their knowledge of what makes the Steelers’ players tick and their overall improvement, you can’t feel too bad about this loss.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the Steelers’ weren’t going to go 16-0 this season. Mike Tomlin’s not going to go 240-0 as the Steelers’ coach. He’s going to have to deal with losing every now and then. Of course, Tomlin’s harder to read than a Russian novel, so it was hard to tell from watching the game how he was handling the adversity. But I caught a glimpse of him in a heated discussion with one of his assistants in the fourth quarter when the game was slipping away. It was kind of cool to see a little fire in Tomlin. It’s a nice change of pace from the first three weeks of the season, when Tomlin looked so relaxed he could have been in a Corona commercial.
One thing’s for sure, it won’t be a slow News day at Heinz Field on Monday. Tomlin will have a lot of fodder for “The News,” his forum for singling out miscues. Tomlin’s newscast should lead with Ike Taylor’s maddening display. Taylor was more 2006 Underachiever than 2005 Shutdown Corner on Sunday. His unsportsmanlike conduct penalty helped the Cardinals along on their opening drive in the second half. Then Carey Davis was called for an illegal-man-downfield penalty on a punt, which forced Sepulveda to punt again. Steve Breaston returned the second punt for a touchdown, which gave the Cardinals a 14-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. Then Leinart reentered the game, and Taylor got burned on his first pass, a 38-yard completion to Larry Fitzgerald, which brought the ball to the Steelers’ 44 and got the Cardinals’ going on the drive that increased their lead to 21-7.
Some tough practices might be in order. Tomlin’s going to have to right the ship quickly because the Steelers face another team with a grudge next week when the Seahawks come to Heinz Field. I hope to see a nice gallery of signs directed at Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren for his whining about the officiating in Super Bowl XL.
After facing the Seahawks, the Steelers have their bye week. The consensus was that the Steelers needed to make hay in September because their schedule would be tougher after that. Now all of a sudden, that schedule doesn’t look so daunting. Of the Steelers’ 11 games after the bye, only two are against teams who currently have winning records. Do the Broncos seem so scary now? Or the Ravens? Or the Jets?
If the Steelers can tackle the rest of their schedule without any more defections to the desert, these losses could be few and far between.
No ordinary Joe
By Mike Batista
September 24, 2007
No one can say the Steelers haven’t been tested this season. After all, they trailed for 12 seconds Sunday before roaring back and routing the San Francisco 49ers 37-16.
Joe Nedney, who should be known as Joe Bleeping Nedney to true Steelers fans, kicked a 32-yard field goal to give the 49ers a 3-0 lead 5:36 into the game, dealing the Steelers their first deficit of the season.
Allen Rossum, who until Sunday should have been known as Allen Bleeping Rossum to true Steelers fans for wasting a roster spot, returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 Steelers lead 5:48 into the game.
The Steelers (3-0) led the rest of the way, but this wasn’t the Browns or the Bills. The lifting got a little bit heavier this week. The 49ers (2-1) are my pick as parity’s darlings in the NFL this season. I said they would have the best record in the NFC, then go down in the divisional round of the playoffs. OK, best record in the NFC might be a little bit of a stretch, but I’ll stick to my guns on that. At the very least, I think the Steelers faced a playoff-caliber team.
The 49ers still had a shot when they took possession down 23-9 with 4:59 left in the game. Bryant McFadden foiled that drive with a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown, making it 30-9 with 4:01 to go. It certainly seemed like Dandy Don Meredith “Turn Out the Lights” time (by the way, you just don’t get that sort of thing anymore with today’s announcers. It’s too bad.). But the 49ers weren’t done yet. They scored with 2:30 left to get back to within two touchdowns. Punter Daniel Sepulveda added “hands-team member” to his job description by cradling the onsides kick to secure the win.
The sweetest thing about this victory? The Steelers beat a team with Joe Nedney, who kicked the winning field goal in overtime for the Tennessee Titans to beat the Steelers 34-31 in the 2002 AFC divisional playoffs. Nedney missed his first attempt, but got another chance when Dewayne Washington was called for roughing the kicker. After the game, Nedney said that he should try acting, hinting that he took a dive and convinced the officials that Washington hit him harder than he really did. Bastard.
The Steelers went 10-5-1 that year. It was the Year of Tommy Maddox. They didn’t have a great defense, but they could put points on the board. If they could have pulled out that game in Tennessee, and then somehow won another shootout in Oakland in the AFC championship game, they would have faced Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII. The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, but the Steelers were the last team to beat them. They won 17-7 in Tampa on a Monday night in the second to last week of the season. For two teams who didn’t see much of each other, the Steelers and Bucs had a pretty fierce rivalry in that era. Lee Flowers, a Steelers safety at the time, called the Buccaneers paper champions.
The Bucs were without starting quarterback Brad Johnson in that Monday night game, but the Steelers’ win over them that late in the season might have been in their heads if they faced them again in the Super Bowl. But thanks to Nedney’s Oscar performance, the Steelers were two wins short of another shot at the Bucs.
That wasn’t the only time the Steelers were denied a Super Bowl berth against a team they beat in the regular season. I have to bring up this historic footnote since the Steelers only play the 49ers once every four years. When the 49ers went 15-1 and won the Super Bowl in 1984, the Steelers were the only team to beat them. It was a 20-17 win at San Francisco in Week 7. I’m on a mission to find some kind of account of that game. All I’ve found on the Internet is a score. I might have to go old-school and resort to microfilm at a library. I figure the 49ers must have been without a key player in that game. The Steelers weren’t that good, but they were good enough to win a crummy AFC Central with a 9-7 record and upset the Broncos in the playoffs. But they weren’t good enough to deny Dan Marino his only Super Bowl appearance.
This year, the Steelers are good. They’re 3-0 for the first time since 1992, Bill Cowher’s first season as coach. They went 11-5 that year and lost to the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs. They were the top seed in the AFC playoffs that year, but they were still wet behind the ears and couldn’t overcome a more seasoned Bills team that was in the midst of four straight Super Bowl appearances. That’s kind of the same fate I foresee for this year’s 49ers.
The last time the Steelers went 4-0? In 1979, the year they won their fourth Super Bowl. In 1978, they started 7-0. Zeroes under the ‘L’ column were rare during the Cowher Era, since Cowher was notorious for slow starts.
OK, enough looking back. It seems like a damn good Steelers season is unfolding here, and I’m giving history lessons about the numbingly mediocre 1980s Sorry about the flashback. It’s Joe Nedney’s fault
The Steelers are Mike Tomlin’s team now. Having said that, he doesn’t get as much face time during game broadcasts as his predecessor. He doesn’t scream and shout. He doesn’t spit in players’ faces. He doesn’t run up and down the sideline. He’s cool and calm as he presides over the game operation, delegating power to his assistants. That doesn’t make for good television. I want to see more of Tomlin. The lack of exposure kind of adds an air of intrigue to the new Steelers coach. I’d like to hear more from him, too, but when I listen to his press conferences I can’t always decipher his Southern accent.
One thing that did resonate loud and clear was Tomlin's pledge to run Willie Parker “until the wheels come off.” He sure used him yesterday. Parker gained 133 yards on 24 carries. He didn’t score any touchdowns, but his runs were key in driving the Steelers to their second touchdown, which came late in the first half and gave them a 14-6 halftime lead. He also was instrumental in the Steelers’ opening drive of the second half, which resulted in a field goal. The wheels on Willie go round and round. Hey, if Jerome Bettis was The Bus, then what’s Parker? The Porsche? The Ferrari?
The Steelers’ offense didn’t end with Parker. In case you haven’t heard by now, the Steelers are going to use their tight ends a lot this season. Heath Miller was their leading receiver with four catches for 82 yards. Jerame Tuman caught a 9-yard touchdown pass. And they were without rookie Matt Spaeth, who has two touchdown catches this year. Ben Roethlisberger completed 13 of his 20 passes, and only four were caught by wide receivers.
On defense, the Steelers got off the field on third down, allowing only five of 15 third-down conversions. They yielded just 289 yards of total offense (many of them coming late in the game when the 49ers were throwing the ball on just about every play). They had only two sacks. The 49ers picked up the blitz fairly well. But that’s nitpicking.
The bottom line is the Steelers faced their strongest opponent of the season so far, and they still won convincingly.
And we don’t have to see Joe Nedney again.
By Mike Batista
September 17, 2007
Maybe I’m too tough on the Steelers.
I was nervous about the season opener in Cleveland, and they won big. I was nervous about Sunday’s home opener against the Buffalo Bills, and they won 26-3.
If the Steelers were playing a team of jockeys, I’d still be nervous. That’s what you get when you cross a Steelers fan with a Red Sox fan.
Those of you who don’t know me, I’m a Boston fan for all pro sports except football. So the negativity of being a Red Sox fan seeps into my psyche as a Steelers fan.
Now I’m going to have to go off on a Red Sox tangent here. I know most Steelers fans don’t give a shit about the Red Sox, but maybe you should. Because of the sorry state of the Pirates, Pittsburgh fans should be allowed to adopt another Major League Baseball team as their favorite. I recommend the Red Sox.
If you don’t want to give up on the Pirates, my hat’s off to you. Actually, I used to have a Pirates hat. In the summer of 1981, I played on the Pirates in the Boys Club baseball league in Pawtucket, R.I. My dad bought me one of those old-school Pirates caps from the late 1970s, the ones with the flat top and black stripes that went all the way around. Of course, I didn’t have any Stargell stars on mine. Anyway, if you’re not interested in applying for dual citizenship in Steelers Nation and Red Sox Nation, skip the next seven paragraphs and pick up the column from there.
Obviously, it's hard to catch the Red Sox on TV behind enemy lines here in New York. Sometime during the summer, I saw that the Red Sox were playing the Yankees Sept. 16 on the Sunday night game on ESPN. That meant I'd watch the Steelers during the day, and enjoy the rare treat of watching Red Sox at night. I couldn’t wait. Thanks to the Steelers, the day started out fine, but the Red Sox ruined my night with a 4-3 loss to the Yankees. David Ortiz popped out with the bases loaded to end the game.
Yeah, I know. The Red Sox are still 4½ games ahead of the Yankees in the AL East, but they can’t beat the Yankees, and that makes me wonder if they’re good enough to win the World Series, even though they have the best record in baseball.
And I know I shouldn’t be bitching since the Red Sox finally won their long awaited world championship in 2004. But they have a chance to win another one and shut up the “You won one World Series in 86 years” people.
The Red Sox probably wouldn’t have gone so long between world championships if it weren’t for events like Bucky Dent’s home run in the 1978 single-game playoff at Fenway Park to decide the American League East. Dent, who choked up on his bat (who does that anymore?), hit a pop fly that the wind carried over the Green Monster. The Yankees went on to win the game and the World Series. In 1986, the Sox were one strike away from finally winning the championship in Game 6 of the World Series against the Mets. But the Mets came back and eventually won when Mookie Wilson’s ground ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs. Then they won Game 7. In 2003, the Yankees’ Aaron Boone, who like Dent 25 years earlier couldn’t hit for shit, whacked a game-winning home run in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to beat the Red Sox. That’s why citizens of Red Sox Nation are so grumpy, and I don’t think one World Series win will be enough to change the culture. It’s going to take a Red Sox dynasty. Maybe a batboy should point a camera toward the other dugout during games and steal some signs. Then they’d win three World Series in four years and be just like the Patriots.
Like the Red Sox, the Steelers recently ended a long wait and won a championship.
Like the Red Sox, the Steelers’ wait was made longer by a series of chokes and heartbreaks, like Tim McKyer’s blown coverage against the Chargers in the 1994 AFC championship game. Like Kordell Stewart’s two interceptions in the end zone against the Broncos in the 1997 AFC championship game. Like the two special teams blunders against the Patriots in the 2001 AFC championship game. Like Titans kicker Joe Nedney’s acting debut in a 2002 AFC divisional playoff game. Like Bill Cowher’s decision to settle for a field goal on fourth-and-goal with the Steelers down by 14 to the Patriots in the fourth quarter of the 2004 AFC championship game. At least the Red Sox’ heartache was spread out over 86 years. Before the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl, their fans’ frustration was like Red Sox fans’ frustration on speed.
So, if you’re a Pirates fan who wants to jump ship, come on board with Red Sox Nation. Then maybe you’ll understand why I found things to complain about during the Steelers’ beating of the Bills on Sunday.
Pirates faithful, welcome back. I thought the Bills would be a dangerous opponent for the Steelers for a couple of reasons. First, they just might have the best special teams in the NFL, and special teams have traditionally been an Achilles’ heel for the Steelers. Also, I thought the Bills would rally around teammate Kevin Everett, who suffered a life-threatening spinal cord injury last week.
The Steelers dominated statistically but couldn’t put the ball in the end zone in the first half. They led 12-0 at halftime on four Jeff Reed field goals. That bothered me. The way they piled on the field goals reminded me of the Steeler teams of the mid-90s. They had great defenses, but on offense, all they could do was run the ball, and they didn’t have Jerome Bettis yet to finish the job in goal-line situations. So they killed teams softly with field goals, and maybe a defensive touchdown.
Now, the Steelers can do more on offense than run the ball. They have a quarterback who has the potential to be among the NFL’s top five in Ben Roethlisberger. They certainly used him Sunday. Of his 34 passes, 29 came in the first half. Because of their huge time-of-possession advantage, Roethlisberger was able to throw all those passes in the first half while Willie Parker gained 70 yards on 13 carries. He finished with 126 yards on 23 carries.
The Bills’ special teams prowess set up their only score of the game, which came on the opening drive of the second half. Terrence McGee returned the opening kickoff 63 yards to the Steelers’ 32 (Lawrence Timmons made the tackle on that, by the way. He’ll be fine). Ryan Lindell’s 24-yard field goal put the Bills on the board.
Later in the third quarter, the Steelers finally found the end zone. Matt Spaeth caught a 1-yard pass from Roethlisberger for his second touchdown of the season. It makes the Steelers’ decision to have 6,000 tight ends seem a little smarter. It’ll help in goal-line situations.
That touchdown was set up by Roethlisberger’s 27-yard pass to Santonio Holmes, which brought them to the Bills’ 5 with 6:01 left in the third. That was the first time I raised my hand for a high-five with other Steelers fans. I didn’t think the Steelers’ performance was worthy until then. But that’s just me.
Yes, it took the Steelers a while to find the end zone, but they still scored points. On the other side of the ball, they’ve given up just 10 points this season. I should come to terms with the fact that this is a pretty good Steelers team. Last week, I pointed out that the Steelers also started out 1-0 last year before their season went south. This week, I’m going to say that the Steelers’ 2-0 record is reminiscent of their 2-0 record two years ago. Like 2005, they started the season with two convincing wins over mediocre teams. They opened ’05 with a 34-7 win over the Titans at home and a 27-7 win at Houston. Four-and-a-half months later, they were Super Bowl champions.
But it’s still early, and I stand by my assertion that September isn’t as easy as it looks for the Steelers. Next week they host the 49ers, my pick as this year’s “out of nowhere” team in the NFL. So far, that prediction looks good. They’re 2-0, winning two close games. They’re heading in the right direction.
And so are the Steelers.
The Red Sox? Well, that’s another story.
By Mike Batista
September 10, 2007
The Steelers are back! They opened their 75th anniversary season Sunday with a 34-7 rout of the Browns in Cleveland. Ben Roethlisberger looked like his old self, throwing for four touchdowns and no interceptions. Willie Parker didn’t disappoint, running for 109 yards on 27 carries, just over four yards a carry.
They made 'em whimper in the Dawg Pound.
Might as well start printing those playoff tickets, because if you look at where the Steelers were at this point last season ...
Wait a minute.
The Steelers won their opener last season, too. They beat the Dolphins 28-17. Bill Cowher kissed Joey Porter when the Steelers had the game in hand, and it looked like all would be A-OK in Steelerland.
Then look what happened.
Not to take away from what the Steelers accomplished Sunday. This was a legitimate, Grade A, kid-tested, mother-approved ass kicking. James Harrison did a lot of that kicking. He filled Joey Porter’s shoes admirably at right outside linebacker, leading the Steelers with seven tackles and adding a sack. But Harrison always does well in Cleveland, whether he’s tackling Browns players or drunken Browns fans.
Old tormenter Jamal Lewis was held to 35 yards on 11 carries by a run defense that was as stout as ever. Speaking of the defense, is it me or does defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau look younger? Maybe Mike Tomlin’s youth is rubbing off on his staff.
The Steelers also quieted some of their draft critics, with their two most puzzling picks coming up big. Some wondered why they would trade up to get a punter in the fourth round. Daniel Sepulveda provided an answer, for a week anyway. He pinned the Browns at their own 2-, 13-, 9- and 5-yard lines.
Even though they have perfectly good tight ends in Heath Miller and Jerame Tuman, the Steelers drafted Matt Spaeth in the third round in April. Well, I guess Sunday’s game proved you can never have too many tight ends. Spaeth caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger early in the third quarter to give the Steelers a 24-0 lead and pretty much put the game away. Big Ben didn’t forget about Miller, though. Miller caught four passes for 35 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown to make it 31-7 late in the third.
You have to feel better about this season’s opening win than last season’s. The Steelers trailed in the fourth quarter at home against a Dolphins team that didn’t turn out to be all that good. So this year’s 1-0 record is stronger than last year’s.
But this is about as easy as it gets on the Steelers’ schedule. Enjoy the cupcakes (or in this case Brownies) now.
Some Steelers pundits (I love the word “pundit.” I wish I could say it every day.) have said that the Steelers need to take advantage of their easy September schedule, because the opponents get tougher after that. I don’t know who would that September’s schedule will be easy. I heard some dumbass from New York said it, some weirdo whose last name is also the name of a former Cuban dictator.
Uh, anyway, I’m telling you now that the Steelers’ September schedule isn’t as easy as it looks. They host the Bills next week. I think the Bills are going to surprise some teams this season. The Broncos needed a last-second field goal to beat them Sunday, and the Bills probably have the best special teams in the NFL. Sepulveda aside, the Steelers have almost always been vulnerable on special teams. Allen Rossum was a total dud on returns Sunday, by the way.
In Week 3, the Steelers host the 49ers, who were already on the upswing before spending $40 million on upgrades in free agency. They’re my pick to overtake Seattle and win the NFC West. Then in Week 4, the Steelers travel to Arizona. You know damn well that Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm are going to want to show the Rooneys that they made the wrong choice by not hiring one of them as the Steelers’ head coach. Alan Faneca’s probably going to miss the Saturday walkthrough that week so he can look at houses in Arizona. The Cardinals might be the frontrunners for the services of the disgruntled lineman next season. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if he changes jerseys in mid-game.
But regardless of Whisenhunt’s motivation to shove some cactus up the Steelers’ ass, the Cardinals are also an improved team that won’t be easy to beat.
The Steelers need to come out of September with at least a 3-1 record, and that’s not going to happen if their offensive line doesn’t improve. The Browns sacked Roethlisberger only once, but the line didn’t exactly protect him. He seemed to be clutching his ribs quite a bit during the game. Roethlisberger has a knack for appearing more hurt than he really is, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
The line’s a work in progress, and the Steelers aren’t always going to enjoy five turnovers from the opposition. I could be really negative and Oliver Stone-like here and say the Browns will commit a lot of turnovers this year so they can lose on purpose, fire Romeo Crennel and hire Bill Cowher next year.
But I think the Browns were actually trying to win yesterday. They had a great draft and wanted to take the first step toward rebuilding. And what better way to do that than to spoil Tomlin’s debut as Steelers coach? That made me a little nervous about this game (along with the fact that I work with two Browns fans, and bragging rights were at stake).
Overall, the Steelers were impressive in delaying construction on the Browns’ rebuilding project. Next week, it will get a little tougher.
By Mike Batista
September 2, 2007
Now that the meaningless preseason games are over, I can get down to the business of offering my official Steelahs.com prediction for 2007.
In support of the Steelers players, I didn’t dare look at the regular season before the end of their final preseason game. Mike Tomlin didn’t allow them to do any preparation for the season opener against Cleveland until after the preseason finale against Carolina. He wanted the team to focus solely on the next game, even if it was a game that didn’t count. Ben Roethlisberger had to go behind Tomlin’s back to watch a tape of the Browns.
Good for Roethlisberger. He has the sense to get a head start on studying for the regular-season opener. It eases any doubt about his head being screwed on right after a tumultuous 2006. Bad for Tomlin. Losing to the rebuilding Browns is the worst way he could start his tenure as Steelers coach. It could turn much of the sentiment of Steelers Nation against him. And one of the basic tenets of Steelahs.com says that a game on the road against a divisional opponent is never a guaranteed win.
About the only thing that’s guaranteed this season is the Chargers, Patriots and Colts making the playoffs. That essentially leaves three playoff spots open in the AFC. The Ravens will win the AFC North and get in. The Steelers went 6-2 in the second half of the season last year, with both losses coming in convincing fashion to the Ravens. The Ravens will still be better than the Steelers this year, but the gap will narrow.
The Broncos will get the first wild-card spot as the No. 5 seed. The tragedy the team suffered during the offseason will be a motivator, and they’ve improved their running game with Travis Henry and their secondary with Dre’ Bly. That leaves one playoff spot up for grabs. The Jaguars, Jets, Bengals, Titans – and Steelers – will be in the running for it.
The Jets made the playoffs last year with a 10-6 record and added Thomas Jones to legitimize their ground game. There’s a lot of optimism in Tennessee. The Titans have a rising star in Vince Young and they finished last season by winning six of their last seven. But because of tough schedules, neither team will make the playoffs.
The Bengals? No defense. No playoffs.
The Jaguars could have the best defense in the NFL. But they have problems on offense. The biggest game on the Steelers’ schedule this year might just be their game against the Jaguars at home on Dec. 16. Look for the Steelers to win that game. That win will come in handy, because the Steelers and Jaguars will both finish 10-6, and the Steelers will make the playoffs by virtue of their head-to-head tiebreaker over Jacksonville.
This all hinges on the Steelers beating Jacksonville, which they should have done each of the last two years. It’s funny, the Steelers lost to the Jaguars two years ago because they didn’t have Ben Roethlisberger and they lost to them last year because Roethlisberger shouldn’t have been playing. In 2005, Tommy Maddox bungled his way through a 23-17 overtime loss with Roethlisberger injured. Rashean Mathis returned an interception for a touchdown to give the Jags (who where the worst 12-4 team of all-time that year) the win in OT. Then last year, Roethlisberger came back two weeks after an appendectomy and the Steelers lost 9-0. Roethlisberger returned too early. Charlie Batch might have been able to scrape together 10 points to steal a win that night. It’s probably the Steelers’ most overlooked loss last year. Much is made of their losses to the Raiders and Bengals. But the Jacksonville loss is another one that could have been avoided.
So the Steelers will get into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, just like they did two years ago, and like they could have done last year if their Super Bowl hangover had worn off earlier.
The first thing the Steelers need to get back to the playoffs will be Roethlisberger’s return to his old self. He’ll do well in a more open offense. He’s not content as a system quarterback. He wants to throw the ball, and he’ll have the opportunity to do that under new coordinator Bruce Arians. He’ll get help from Santonio Holmes, who I believe is going to have a breakout year. The Steelers will put some points on the board this season.
That said, the Steelers can’t turn into the pass-happy unit that floundered in 2003. They’ll need feast-or-famine running back Willie Parker to have the kind of year he had last year. That means we’ll have to sit through 15 of his carries adding up to 20 yards before he lets loose for a 60- and an 80-yard run.
My biggest concern on offense is the line. It looks like there are going to be a couple of new faces. There might be a few kinks to work out before the unit jells.
On defense, the Steelers should again be among the best in the NFL with the combination of their solid front seven doing its job, Troy Polamalu flying around and Dick LeBeau running the show. The problem area, if there is one, will be in the secondary. I don’t think I’ve felt comfortable with the Steelers’ defensive backs since Rod Woodson left. It’s frustrating that Bryant McFadden can’t win a starting job. Deshea Townsend isn’t getting any younger, but there’s no one good enough to beat him out. At least that’s what it looked like about a week before the season. On the other side, we’ll see if Ike Taylor can earn his money.
Since Bill Cowher’s not coaching anymore, we’re not going to forget about special teams. Tomlin put a lot of work into it early in training camp, and just before press time for this story, the Steelers acquired return specialist Allen Rossum from Atlanta. I wish I could get excited about that move, but Rossum is 31 and a little past his prime. The Steelers’ biggest special teams weapon is rookie punter Daniel Sepulveda, who with his big leg can give the Steelers the edge in field-position battles.
So does this all add up to a repeat of the magic carpet ride of 2005, when the Steelers became the first No. 6 seed to win the Super Bowl? I’m going to prolong the suspense a little longer by revealing what I think will happen in the NFC.
The 49ers are my pick as the NFL’s out-of-nowhere team this season. They’re on the way up, and they’ll make a bigger leap than anyone expects this year by winning the NFC West and taking the top seed in the NFC playoffs. If you haven’t heard of Frank Gore, you will by the end of the season.
The Cowboys will grab the No. 2 seed, winning the NFC East. The Saints will win the NFC South and take the No. 3seed. The Bears will win the NFC North and earn the No. 4 seed. The wild cards will be the aging but wily Seahawks with the No. 5 seed and the Panthers with the No. 6 seed.
Saints beat Panthers and Seahawks beat Bears on wild-card weekend. In the divisional round, the Seahawks will take advantage of the 49ers’ lack of playoff experience and win that one while the Cowboys beat the Saints. The Cowboys will then atone for the botched snap against Seattle in last year’s playoffs and beat the Seahawks in Dallas to reach the Super Bowl for the 10th time in franchise history.
Now for the AFC, where the Chargers will be the top seed, followed by the Patriots, Colts and Ravens. As I said before, the Broncos will be the No. 5 seed and the Steelers will take the No. 6 seed.
Unfortunately, lightning will not strike twice. The Colts will beat the Steelers in a shootout at Indianapolis in the wild card, with Peyton Manning outslinging Roethlisberger. At least it will be an exciting end to the Steelers’ season.
The Ravens will beat the Broncos in the other wild-card game. In the divisional round, the Colts won’t roll over in the cold New England weather like they’ve done in years past, but they’ll fall just a hair short against the Patriots. In the other game, the Chargers will defeat the Ravens.
That will set up a rematch of last year’s playoff game between the Patriots and Chargers. The Chargers will learn their lesson, play smarter and go to the Super Bowl.
In the Battle of the Retread Coaches, Norv Turner will lead the Chargers over Wade Phillips and the Cowboys and hoist the Lombardi Trophy. It will be the first and last time that Norv Turner and Vince Lombardi are mentioned in the same sentence.
I know this prediction isn’t exactly what Steelers fans want to hear. But I’ve been wrong before, and I hope I’m wrong this time – about the Steelers, anyway.
Now let’s get out those Browns tapes.
Mike on Mike
By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com front man
August 8, 2007
Cue up the twangy music.
We’d like to welcome Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin to the table at the World Series of Poker.
With his lack of expression on the sidelines and those sunglasses he sometimes wears at practice – the ones with the rectangular frames the size of solar panels – Tomlin would make a great poker player.
Tomlin’s tenure with the Steelers will be a flop, of course, if he doesn’t get the franchise a sixth bracelet. Last year, the Steelers didn’t even make it to the final table. Tomlin’s predecessor, Bill Cowher, won a bracelet. But he could have won more. There were a few times when the Steelers were the chip leaders but couldn’t win the big prize. The Steelers finally won it all when they made it to the final table as the wild card.
Unlike Cowher, Tomlin plays it close to the vest. He’s not going to spit up a storm, kiss his players or stuff a photo in an official’s pocket. The Steelers’ starters looked good Sunday in a 20-7 preseason win over the New Orleans Saints. But we’re a long way from knowing if the Steelers hired the right man for the job.
I’ll admit, when I heard that Tomlin got the job, I let out an emphatic “No!!!” I was among the many who wanted either offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or offensive line coach Russ Grimm to get the job. I liked Whisenhunt because he was at the helm when the Steelers opened up their offense in the 2005 playoffs, which led, finally, to One for the Thumb. I liked Grimm because of his cachet as one of the “Hogs” on the Washington Redskins’ offensive line in the 1980s, a line that was instrumental in winning three Super Bowls.
Mike Tomlin? Who the hell was he? All I knew is that he was younger than me. I’ve come to terms with players being younger than me. But coaches? I just turned 36. I’m seven months and 13 days older than Tomlin. Before Tomlin was born, I was already contributing to society by crying, shitting my pants and pissing on people trying change my diaper. I was even starting to crawl by the time the current head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers was born. Christ, I’m getting old.
Well, I’ve calmed down since the initial shock of Tomlin’s hiring wore off. And no, I never once considered firemiketomlin.com as the name for my Web site. If he could convince the Rooneys to hire him over one of their heirs apparent, then he can motivate a team.
Perhaps the Rooneys felt the organization needed a shakeup. Maybe they looked beyond the shiny Lombardi trophy and saw a team that went from 15 regular-season wins in 2004 to 11 in 2005 to eight in 2006. Yes, the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005. You win championships by playing your best football in December and January, and the Steelers did that. But were they really the best team in the NFL in 2005? What were the chances they could have beaten the Patriots in the AFC championship game if they had to play it at Gillette Stadium? They upset the Indianapolis Colts, but that was a team coached by a man whose son died about a month earlier. Do you really think Tony Dungy was completely focused on preparing for the Steelers? Yes, his assistants probably picked up the slack, but the entire organization was in mourning.
So instead of looking at last year’s 8-8 performance as an aberration, maybe the Steelers’ brass saw it as a sign of a franchise that had gone stale, of players who had become too comfortable.
So far in training camp, the Steelers have been anything but comfortable. No straw hats at this camp. Those two-a-days should knock out any remaining cobwebs from last year’s Super Bowl hangover. And I like the attention being given to special teams. If they remain serious about special teams, they might win a game or two in which they’re not the better team. Just like the Patriots did in the 2001 AFC championship game.
Not long after the Steelers hired Tomlin, I caught NFL Films highlights of Super Bowl XXXVII (the hours of Super Bowl highlights on ESPN is one of the best things about Super Bowl week, by the way). That was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders. You could see Tomlin roaming the sidelines as the Bucs’ defensive backs coach. The Bucs had five interceptions in that game, four from the secondary. Dexter Jackson had two of those interceptions and was named MVP. He became a free agent and I remember being pissed when the Steelers – who needed all the help they could get in the secondary at the time – didn’t get him. Little did I know that the Steelers would eventually get the brains behind Jackson’s MVP effort. That more than makes up for not getting Jackson, who had six interceptions with Arizona in 2003 but has had just two interceptions since with Tampa Bay and Cincinnati.
Last year, as defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, Tomlin led a unit that was eighth in the NFL overall, first against the run. So Tomlin has the credentials, although I’d feel a little better if he had more than a year under his belt as a defensive coordinator.
But it was time for a change, and there might not have been enough change under Grimm or Whisenhunt. Another area where the Steelers needed a kick in the pants was discipline. They committed far too many personal-foul penalties last season. I wouldn’t trade the Cowher Era for anything. It was a great time to be a Steelers fan. But one thing I wasn’t proud of was the Steelers’ trash talking. They were among the league leaders in that category, and they didn’t always back it up. Hopefully, the combination of a new coach with a calm demeanor and the exit of Joey Porter will change that.
Tomlin’s true test as a coach won’t come until the games count. How he’ll be remembered as the Steelers coach depends on what happens when we see the turn and the river. But so far, I think he’s well suited to the job.
Since this is still a fledgling site, and I don’t have the money to advertise on billboards, not yet anyway, I’m going to have to use this space for some shameless plugging. Here goes.
Why choose Steelahs.com? Because the man who brings you Steelahs.com was surfing the ’Net for Steelers stories while the two other major pro sports teams he roots for, the Red Sox and Celtics, made blockbuster trades.
That’s right. On July 31, the Red Sox, for whom a second World Series title in four years is within reach, made the best bullpen in baseball even better by getting Eric Gagne. The Celtics, meanwhile, made a 17th NBA championship a realistic possibility by grabbing Kevin Garnett.
But the real news of the day was Tomlin cutting practice short because Jeff Reed made a 42-yard field goal. A historic day in Boston sports history was unfolding, and I was busy reading about Tomlin wearing all black in the searing heat – again – and Lawrence Timmons standing on the sidelines with a sore groin – again.
But really, I was excited about what the Red Sox did. As far as the Celtics go, does this trade mean I have to start paying attention to the NBA again?
Has anyone noticed that the slogan on the Steelahs.com banner is different? It went from “STEELAHS.COM: MUSINGS OF A MISPLACED STEELERS FAN” to “STEELAHS.COM: STEELERS COMMENTARY FROM BEYOND THE ’BURGH.” Let me explain. I didn’t like the word “musings.” The 1993 edition of Mirriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary refers the reader to “meditation” in its definition of “musings.” It’s basically a fancy word for thoughts. After further review, I decided it was too fancy. I’m sure most of you know what it means. After all, if you’re reading Steelahs.com, you’re not stupid. But I thought the word was a little too uppity for a football Web site. So in the spirit of training camp, I had to cut “musings.”
I had to change the banner, anyway, because I wanted to get the word “Steelers” closer to the beginning of the slogan for search engine purposes. For one day, the banner read “STEELAHS.COM: VIEWS FROM STEELERS NATION’S NORTHEAST TERRITORY.” You only saw that if you visited the site late in the day on Aug. 2 (my birthday) or early in the day on Aug. 3. It was sort of like Reggie Jackson playing for the Orioles in 1976. Has anyone actually seen footage of Jackson in an O’s uniform, by the way? I’m beginning to wonder if he really played for the Orioles.
Anyway, I decided to scrap the second slogan because while I wanted to somehow encompass the fact that I’m a Steelers fan from another region, I thought the word “Northeast” might turn away some Steelers fans from Pittsburgh. I don’t want to do that. Most of my feedback so far is coming from the Pittsburgh area.
I think “BEYOND THE ’BURGH” is a more subtle way of saying that I’m from outside Pittsburgh while at the same time, with the use of the term “’BURGH,” letting readers know that I’m in tune with the Pittsburgh culture.
There will be a few more changes to Steelahs.com in the coming weeks. After all, this site is still in its infancy. I plan to add reference information about the Steelers and the NFL in general, so that when you come to Steelahs.com, you’ll want to stay a while.
Talk of the tawn
Matt K. is the latest to offer me assistance with my Pittsburgh accent. He tells me it’s “awt of tawn” or “out of taun.” Then he said “You're the man, but remember that yinz aut a' tawners need to keep rootin on em Stillers n'at.” I think I understood that whole sentence except for the “n’at” at the end. If you’re out there, Matt K., help me out.
OK, I made a mistake. I said in my previous column, “Summer Reading,” that Alan Faneca was born exactly 30 years after Larry Bird. The difference is 20 years, not 30. Damn. But it’s still a round number. It doesn’t take away from the spooky parallel. Two of the best players ever on two teams that I root for from different cities were born exactly 20 years apart. One of them played his whole career with one team. It doesn’t look like the other one will, and I have a lingering feeling that wherever the other one goes, he’s going to have a few good years left in him.
Hey, at least I was right about one thing. Way back on May 18, I said that I like the Steelers’ second-round draft pick better than their first. How ya’ like me now? Stick with me, we’ll go places.
By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com Prime Minister
July 23, 2007
When I was a kid, I hated seeing “Back to School” ads in July. It meant that the dreaded month of September wasn’t too far off. Now that I’m old enough to go to bars and watch the Steelers, I actually look forward to September.
So all you kids out there who have to see or hear the words “Back to School” either in commercials or from dorky adults trying to make conversation, I feel for you. But now that I am one of those dorky adults, I’m going to tell you one thing: I hope you’re caught up on your summer reading.
Steelers training camp is here, the first step toward hiding away the 2006 season like some shameful family secret. That got me thinking: What would be on the Steelers’ summer reading list? Here are their assignments, based on the Steelahs.com curriculum guidelines:
“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens
Will Tomlin get the Steelers started on a Super Bowl ring for other hand? Or will he be the first Steelers coach since Bill Austin to not win the Super Bowl? Not only did Bill Cowher win a Super Bowl, but he went 11-5 in his first season and made the playoffs in each of his first six seasons. That earned him a lot of breathing room during the lean years. The Rooneys are patient with their coaches, but if Tomlin starts out with a couple of 9-7 seasons, he’ll be hearing it from the fans.
“It” by Stephen King
OK, you’re probably thinking “What the f---?” In the halcyon days before the Patriots starting winning Super Bowls, Boston sports talk radio host Eddie Andleman used to complain that Drew Bledsoe didn’t have “it.” He never could define “it,” but he said that Joe Montana had “it” and John Elway had “it.” Yes, Roethlisberger has a Super Bowl ring. The Steelers wouldn’t have reached Super Bowl XL without Roethlisberger throwing the ball more during the playoffs. But he was putrid in the Super Bowl. He deserves a mulligan for last year, considering the motorcycle crash and the appendectomy. Will he ever recover from the motorcycle crash? His performance this year will go a long way toward answering that question.
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
Faneca gets this one because of all the complaining he’s done about his contract situation. I’ve actually softened my stance on Faneca. He’s one of the best offensive linemen of all time and the Steelers should have done whatever they could to keep him. It’s too late now. It looks like Faneca would rather go to a place like Arizona and play in half-empty stadiums. Too bad it had to end this way.
“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” by Michael Chabon
I read this book when I was about 16. I’d probably understand it better if I read it now. Anyway, the mystery here is who is the real Ike Taylor? Is it the cornerback who was a crucial part of the Steelers’ 2005 championship team or is it the cornerback who was benched last year? Here’s a guy who can benefit from the discipline of Camp Tomlin. By the way, this could also be an assignment for Roethlisberger. He can read it for extra credit.
“A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess
While I’m talking about the secondary, I like how this Syracuse graduate came on late last season. His competition with Ryan Clark at free safety might be the Steelers’ most interesting position battle. The Steelers will have a heck of a tandem back there as Troy Polamalu teams with whoever wins the job.
“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky
What other Steelers Web site is going to mention Dostoevsky? The 2006 season ended on a high note with Holmes running away from the Bengals’ defense to give the Steelers an overtime win. It’s nice to think that it could be a metaphor for this season, the Steelers, and Holmes, picking up where they left off and getting off to a running start. But Holmes had some run-ins with the law before his rookie season. If he can stay out of trouble, he could be the most explosive receiver the Steelers have had in a long time.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo
OK, so this Notre Dame graduate isn’t really a hunchback, although he kind of is when he’s lined up before the snap. But this acquisition has sort of flown under the radar during the offseason. He can play center or guard. He could follow in the tradition of Steelers centers Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings. But even if he doesn’t, he’ll be starting somewhere on the offensive line. The unit definitely needs some new blood. I think this guy's going to help.
Willie Parker, Kevan Barlow, Najeh Davenport:
“The Running Man” by Stephen King
OK, so I had to use two Stephen King titles to pad this out. Get off my back. Parker's another guy I've softened my stance on. Even after last season, I figured he was too small to shoulder the bulk of the load. But let's face it, he had a great year in 2006. I wish he would have done better in the two games against Baltimore, because a win in one of those games would have put the Steelers in the playoffs. And the Steelers could benefit from a move to the trend of having a running back tandem. But Parker's earned himself a chance to be the man at runnning back.
Team: “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
I fear that one of the reasons for the Steelers’ sharp decline last season was their age. Here are some of their ages as of kickoff on Sept. 9: Hines Ward, 31; Clark Haggans, 30; James Farrior, 32; Travis Kirschke, 33; Casey Hampton, 30: Chris Hoke, 31; Deshea Townsend, 32; Dan Kreider, 30. Alan Faneca will be 31 on Dec. 7, which means he was born exactly 30 years after my boyhood idol, Larry Bird, who will be 61 on that day. Hmmm.
Team: "A Month of Sundays" by John Updike
The Steelers need to take advantage of their weak September schedule and get off to a good start. They open at Cleveland, then they host Buffalo and San Francisco, then they're at Arizona. Those teams had a combined record of 23-41 last season.
Richard Seigler: “The Quickie” by James Patterson
As they say in Pittsburgh, I'll let yinz insert your punchline here.
Extra snaps: I guess I need a little help getting the Pittsburgh dialect down. A local Pittsburgher told me it was "out-of-taauwn" not "out-of-ton." Hey, I'm learning. This guy was the first non-friend to submit feedback. This is sort of like a deli hanging the first dollar it makes on a wall.
By Mike Batista
May 18, 2007
As a New Englander-turned-New Yorker, I’m going to play up recent Steeler developments the way the New York tabloids would, by going big with the story about an alleged pimp playing for the Steelers, with a tease to Ben Roethlisberger and Sopranos actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler being photographed together. Of course, there’s also this little matter about Alan Faneca, perhaps the best guard in the NFL, being unhappy about his contract and saying that 2007 will be his last season with the Steelers. And there was this draft thing last month. But I’ll get to that. First let’s get the juicy tidbits out of the way.
The Big Ben thing isn’t much more than the newspaper term I used in the opening paragraph: a tease. Roethlisberger said they were just doing a photo shoot together, and that Sigler, who plays Meadow Soprano on the HBO series, has a boyfriend. Too bad there are only three Sopranos episodes left. Roethlisberger would be great as a guest on the show. With the pinstriped suits he likes to wear, he’d be very convincing playing a mob guy. If Tony Siragusa can do it, so can Big Ben. By the way, considering how much he seems to enjoy the limelight, it’s odd that Roethlisberger is the first Super Bowl-winning quarterback since Brad Johnson NOT to host Saturday Night Live. There should be an investigation.
Now, please allow me a few paragraphs to pounce on the irresistible Richard Seigler story the way that Bart Scott of the Baltimore Ravens pounced on Roethlisberger during the Ravens’ 27-0 victory over the Steelers last season. Seigler, a linebacker who spent part of the 2005 season on the practice squad and played in the final two games last season, was arrested on May 10 and charged with pandering, pandering by furnishing transportation and living from the earnings of a prostitute, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Guess that practice-squad income wasn’t enough, maybe Seigler needed a second job to make ends meet. I don’t know if practice-squad players get Super Bowl rings. That bling-bling would make a nice accessory to the whole pimp get-up.
I have to raise an eyebrow to the timing of his arrest, which came hours after the Steelers released him. Did someone tip off the Steelers about the arrest, so they could release him and be spared the embarrassment of having a current player arrested for such charges? Now we know damn well no team in the NFL has a roster full of boy scouts. Every team has someone who’s been in at least little trouble. But I think it’s safe to say the Steelers are among the better behaved teams in the NFL. Two Steelers were arrested last year. Not bad compared to the nine times Cincinnati Bengals players were arrested last year.
Even if Seigler were arrested before the Steelers released him, I don’t think it would have sullied the team’s decent reputation on the character front. He was just a practice-squad player. I had never even heard of him before he was arrested. And I’m sure performance had at least something to do with his release, and perhaps the Steelers knew nothing about his impending arrest. Maybe it was just a happy coincidence.
OK enough, ahem, screwing around. Let’s talk football. The draft and minicamp have come and gone without a peep from me. I’ve been busy trying to get my fledgling site to look just right before I start, ahem, pimping it.
There are still some kinks to work out. Just like the players, this site needs some offseason conditioning. Hopefully by the time the regular season starts, the site will be looking cooler than an Iron City on a hot summer day. Without further ado, let me catch up on some offseason thoughts:
Changing of the guard?
If Alan Faneca doesn’t calm down, the Steelers should let him walk after the 2007 season. Faneca, a six-time Pro Bowl guard, isn’t happy that the Steelers are dragging their feet in negotiations for a contract extension. He ripped management during last week’s minicamp and has repeatedly asked to be traded.
The offensive line would have a big hole to fill without Faneca, but if the Steelers could only sign one of their free agents after the 2007 season (and it’s doubtful they can re-sign all of them), Faneca’s not the guy I would keep. The one player the Steelers need to re-sign after 2007 is Troy Polamalu, who can perform in any defensive role except maybe one-on-one pass coverage. And he’s 26. Faneca is 30 and probably as good as he’s going to get.
Faneca’s not exactly starving. He is due to make almost $4.4 million in 2007. That’s in the upper echelon of the pay scale for offensive linemen. But he’s seeing fellow offensive linemen like Eric Steinbach and Derrick Dockery sign deals that could be worth as much as $49 million. You can’t blame him for wanting to be paid what his peers are being paid, but it doesn’t make much sense to unload the Brinks truck for one offensive lineman.
An offensive lineman is only as good as the other four players on the line. It’s a team within a team. Winning teams don’t make offensive linemen their highest-paid players. The skill-position players are going to get the big money. That’s life in the NFL. Yes, the offensive linemen do the grunt work and don’t get the attention they deserve. But in all walks of life, the stars are going to make more than the behind-the-scenes guys, even though they might do half the work.
If Faneca stays with the Steelers, he’s likely to get a nice bump in pay. But if he wants to be the highest paid in the NFL at his position, Pittsburgh’s not the place for him.
What’s on draft?
I watched very little of the NFL draft. When you have a significant other, and you block out at least a dozen Sundays (not counting non-Sunday games) during the fall and winter, it’s really hard to sell the need to watch a guy in a suit announcing names from a podium on a Saturday afternoon in the spring.
Besides, I’ve already seen my All-Time Favorite Moment in NFL draft history. It happened in 2004, when Roethlisberger was on the phone with Bill Cowher moments before the Steelers selected him with the No. 11 overall pick. It was funny to see Roethlisberger so polite and deferential on the phone while Cowher was probably at the other end screaming and spitting up a storm. You could tell this was a pick to be excited about. I’m glad I was able to catch that little piece of history live on TV. Obviously, I’d like to see the Steelers win a few more Super Bowls in my lifetime, but as far as draft day goes, I seriously doubt I’ll ever be as entertained as I was that day. And I’m fine with that.
The Steelers addressed their biggest need in the draft by picking linebackers in the first two rounds. I’m a little concerned, however, that they both got hurt on the first day of minicamp like a couple of 40-something weekend warriors. I actually like the second-round pick, LaMarr Woodley of Michigan, better than the first-round pick, Lawrence Timmons of Florida State. Woodley’s bigger and has more upside. I’m a little leery about the fact that Timmons only started for one year on a Florida State team that was barely better than .500.
In the third round they picked tight end Matt Spaeth from Minnesota so they could run some three-tight end sets on offense. That might be a neat thing to try in the red zone, but other than that, what the hell are you going to do with three tight ends on offense? A questionable pick there. I feel better about their next pick, punter Daniel Sepulveda of Baylor. It might seem like a waste to draft if punter, but if you’re going to draft one, he’s the one to get. He won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top college punter. The importance of punting was pretty evident in Super Bowl XL, when Seahawks punter Tom Rouen had three chances to pin the Steelers deep in their own territory in the first half, but kicked it into the end zone for touchbacks each time. If he did a better job, we could still be pining for One for the Thumb.
Then the Steelers got more help for the front seven and the O-Line, which can’t hurt, by picking defensive end Ryan McBean from Oklahoma State in the fourth round and guard Cameron Stephenson from Rutgers in the fifth round. And I’ll be happy with anything they get from cornerback William Gay of Louisville (sixth round) and wide receiver Dallas Baker of Florida (seventh round).
On the run
It’s been widely heralded that the Steelers didn’t pick a running back in the draft. But they did pick up former 49er and Jet Kevan Barlow, who has a 1,000-yard season under his belt. Despite his breakout season in 2006, I’m still not 100 percent sold on Willie Parker. Yes, he ran for 1,494 yards last year, including two games of more than 200 yards rushing. But those two performances, 213 yards against New Orleans and 223 yards against Cleveland, came against teams ranked 23rd and 29th, respectively, in rushing yards allowed per game. Parker gained just 22 and 29 yards in the Steelers’ two losses to Baltimore. The Ravens, by the way, were the only team to beat the Steelers in the second half of the season, when they went 6-2. Granted, the Ravens pummeled them both times. But if the Steelers could have figured out a way to beat the Ravens, and more production from Parker would have helped, they might have made the playoffs. And they would have been a worthy playoff entry. The Kansas City Chiefs made the playoffs, for crying out loud. And the Steelers beat them 45-7. Ah, what might have been.
Parker alone can’t shoulder the load of the running game. Neither can Barlow. But running back tandems are all the rage in the NFL these days, and the Steelers could have something with Parker and Barlow as their 1-2 punch. They’re never going to recapture what they had with Jerome Bettis, a one-of-a-kind running back who kept the chains moving, provided emotional leadership and could pancake Brian Urlacher. You don’t necessarily need that one big bruiser. But you need more than Willie Parker.
Speaking of running, now I have to run. Thank you for choosing Steelahs.com. Come again.
By Mike Batista
May 4, 2007
I’m not waiting another 26 years for the Pittsburgh Steelers to win their sixth Super Bowl. Fortunately, no one will have to wait another day for Steelahs.com. What started out as a marble rattling around my brain is finally here.
No, I’m not from Pittsburgh, I’ve only been to the ’Burgh once. But that doesn’t make me a milk-and-water Steelers fan. If you follow my work on this site, you’ll find that out. Hey, I think growing up in New England should earn me a badge of honor as a Steelers fan. It wasn’t easy, especially since that Sunday afternoon in January of 2002. You (or shall I say yinz) know what I’m talking about. I won’t go there. Not now, anyway.
In 2005, I moved to New York for career purposes. In this age of DirectTV, of course, it doesn’t matter where you live. There are Steelers fans all over the country, and all we have to do is go down to the closest watering hole to watch the Steelers. That helpless feeling of checking for score updates on the 10-Minute Ticker has gone the way of the rotary phone, unless you have a prior commitment, of course. I hope I’m not in that situation a lot, but when I am, it could make for some interesting reading.
I hope fans in Pittsburgh and all over Steelers Nation will check out my Steelers musings. My goal is to express my opinion while not taking myself too seriously. I hope to be insightful, entertaining and unique enough to carve my niche among the tons of Steelers Web sites out there. Even though I’m going to be writing from the perspective of the fan, my columns won’t be without a journalistic instinct.
For those of you from Western Pennsylvania who still aren’t convinced they’re interested in what this New Englander-turned-New Yorker has to say about the Steelers, let me talk about my pilgrimage to Pittsburgh.
It was December of 2002. I rented a car and drove from Newport, RI, where I lived at the time, to see the Steelers beat the Ravens 34-31 in the last game of the regular season. Hard-core Steelers fans can remember that game like the back of their hand, but for those who need a refresher, here it is. It was the Tommy Maddox year. The Steelers were down by 11 with 7½ minutes left and came back to win.
I stayed at the Four Points Sheraton in Coraopolis the night before the game. It was the same hotel the Patriots stayed at before the 2004 AFC championship game. I can’t help but wonder if I had the same room Tom Brady had when he was sick in bed with a thermometer in his mouth the night before carving up the Steelers’ defense in 11-degree weather.
After checking into the hotel, I ate at Quaker Steak. Then after the game, I ate at Max & Erma’s (if I had gone two years later, I could have had a Roethlis-burger). I had some Iron City beer (“Vitamin I” they call it, right?) and still have one unopened bottle in my fridge. I delighted in hearing people drop the “u” in pronouncing the “ou” sound, like soth instead of south and 16-onse instead of 16-ounce. (Just like New Englanders dropping the “r” as in “pahk the cah,” “Hahvid Yahd” and “Steel-ahs”)
And I was at Heinz Field to participate in the chanting of that time-honored mantra of Steelers fans: “Here we go, Steelers! Here we go!” (And I did shout “Steelers” rather than “Steelahs.” I pronounce my r’s now. Well, most of the time, anyway.)
Not a bad way to end this kickoff column. Welcome to Steelahs.com. Here we go.
Got Yourself a Towel
By Mike Batista
June 12, 2007
Assuming there are no motorcycle accidents, things should be relatively quiet on the Steelers front until training camp opens July 23. So I’m providing some filler to keep this site fresh until the Steelers descend on Latrobe. It explains how I became a Steelers fan and my evolution as a Steelers fan over the last quarter century.
This column might not be for everyone. But if David Chase can throw in one of those useless dream episodes on “The Sopranos” every now and then, I can do this. Some readers (you know who you are) have complained that I’ve rambled on too much in my columns. I don’t recommend reading this piece in one sitting. That’s why I broke it up into segments. Take the hour you used to watch “The Sopranos” on Sunday night and read as much as you can. Then take whatever hour you used to watch it again, and finish it up. Now that “The Sopranos” is over, I know I can get all of the show’s 8 million viewers to become die-hard Steelahs.com readers. I just know I can.
I promise my game commentaries during the season won’t be this long. This column does include some insight into Steelers history, if you can handle a lot of autobiographical information along with it. Of course, you can skip this column, but if you do, you better not ask me how I became a Steelers fan growing up in New England. If you want to know that, you’re just going to have to read it.
Ever get to a bar 10 minutes before last call?
In the 26 years between their fourth and fifth Super Bowl championships, that’s what being a Steelers fan felt like for me.
I became a Steelers fan in 1979 and saw them win their fourth Super Bowl. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was closing time for the Steelers’ dynasty. There were a couple of after-hours parties when the Steelers went deep into the playoffs with two of the worst teams ever to make the playoffs.
In 1984, they went 9-7 and upset the Broncos in Denver in the divisional round, but they had no chance in hell against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in the AFC championship game. It turned out the Dolphins had no chance against the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. And who was the only team to beat the 15-1 49ers that year? The Steelers. Don’t ever forget that, Joe Montana.
Then in 1989, after opening the season with a 51-0 loss at home to the Browns, the Steelers of Bubby Brister, Merrill Hoge and Mike Mularkey somehow went 9-7, upset the Oilers in Houston on New Year’s Eve in the wild-card game then lost at Denver by a point. During that off-season, whenever I crossed paths with a stranger in a Steelers hat, we’d start talking about the team. In more than one of those conversations, it was pointed out that if the Steelers had beaten Denver, they surely would have beaten Cleveland in the AFC championship game.
But the 80s were mostly a decade of mediocrity. The bar didn’t open up again until 1992, when Bill Cowher was hired.
Why the Steelers?
When the time came to make one of the biggest decisions of my life, which NFL team to swear allegiance to, I was 8 years old. The decision I made would turn me into a mutated New England sports fan. I grew up a hard-core fan of the Red Sox and Celtics (and unlike with the Steelers, I picked the absolute best time to become a Celtics fan) and a Bruins fan pretty much by default since I rarely follow the NHL.
And then there’s the Steelers.
In the schoolyards of New England in 1979, boys who liked football wore those knitted winter hats with the pom-poms on top. The ones who didn’t wear Patriots hats wore either Steelers or Cowboys hats.
I had read somewhere that the Steelers were unbeaten, but strangely enough, it was largely two losses that hooked me on the Steelers. They had won their third Super Bowl the season before and started the 1979 season 4-0. Then one Sunday afternoon, a Steelers game at Philadelphia just happened to be on TV. It would be years before it was do-or-die that I be glued to the TV for Steelers games from kickoff to the final gun. Back then, in my youthful innocence, I looked at the TV and saw that the Eagles were beating the Steelers. I pointed to the TV in amazement and told my father something like, “The Steelers haven’t lost any games this season!” My father just shrugged. I don’t think he understood the magnitude of what was happening. His son was being lured by a cult. This cult would brainwash him to the point that at age 34 he would be reduced to howling at the top of his lungs and waving a yellow towel in front of dozens of strangers at a public establishment as he watched the Steelers win Super Bowl XL. He would even ignore his girlfriend, who sat with him at that very same establishment the following November, as he watched the 2-6 Steelers desperately maintain their dignity by beating the Saints 38-31. Only there was no towel-waving that day (I only break out the Terrible Towel for the playoffs).
It all started that day in 1979. This was before DirectTV. This was before the term “sports bar” was even established. This was before cable TV. I just stumbled upon a Steelers game on a tiny TV mounted on a bureau in my parents’ bedroom in our second-floor apartment in Pawtucket, RI. The antennas were bent well enough for me to see the Eagles beat the Steelers 17-14. The Steelers might have lost a game that day, but they were starting to gain a fan.
The next time I was aware of a Steelers game was three weeks later, when they beat the Broncos 42-7 at home on a Monday night. I can’t believe there actually was a time when the Steelers were playing on a Monday night and I didn’t watch it. I was 8. It’s not like I was working that night. Anyway, I looked at the box score in The Evening Times (Pawtucket’s daily newspaper) the next day. The overline read something like “Big, Bad Steelers.” Seeing the words above that box score was another step toward the Point of No Return for this budding Steelers fan.
The next week, I caught the tail-end of the Steelers’ 14-3 win over the Cowboys (25 years later, almost to the day, another Steelers win over the Cowboys would increase my interest in the team, which had slipped to the devoted level, back to maniacal once again. I’ve maintained that level ever since).
Three weeks later, I watched a Steelers game from beginning to end for the first time. Unfortunately, it was a 35-7 loss to the Chargers in San Diego. But for some strange reason, this embarrassing loss just drew me in even more. I watched this game on the living-room TV. The Steelers were losing 28-0, and I wasn’t happy. They finally scored a touchdown. I probably didn’t know enough about football yet to realize that it was too little, too late. I screamed “Touchdown!” loud enough to be heard throughout the whole apartment as I sat on my father’s lap. There it was, the first time I screamed while watching the Steelers. Sort of like Pete Rose getting his first hit.
It was the best Christmas of my life. Among the black and gold gifts I received were these little Steelers figurines that came with uniform-number decals so you could pretend it was whatever player you wanted. I also got a Steelers sweatshirt that my sister (two years my junior) would point to and say “Pitts-bird Steelers.”
Then came the playoffs. It wasn’t until years later that I found out the Steelers might not have been the best team in the NFL that year. The truth would have been too painful for me at such a young age. The Chargers, like the Steelers, were 12-4 that year, but had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by virtue of their win over the Steelers.
Mean Joe Greene said something interesting in an interview on WFAN in the days leading up to Super Bowl XL. To the best of my recollection, he said the Steelers watched game film of Dan Fouts, the Chargers quarterback, after their loss to the Chargers and noticed that he shifted his feet a certain way before passing. He said the Steelers gave this information to the Houston Oilers, who played at San Diego in the AFC divisional playoffs. The Oilers upset the Chargers, which allowed the Steelers to avoid the Chargers and play the AFC championship game at home, where they defeated the Oilers and reached Super Bowl XIV.
When the Steelers beat the Rams to win their fourth Super Bowl. I remember Terry Bradshaw jumping up and down doing a windmill motion with his arms. I tried to imitate that in the living room. Our babysitter thought I was crazy. I would only get crazier from there.
During the early part of this decade (what do we call this decade, by the way? The 2000s? The zeroes? Any input on this would be greatly appreciated), Patriots fans emboldened by their team’s dynasty charged me with being a frontrunner. A frontrunner wouldn’t be able to stomach the likes of Mark Malone, Scott Campbell and Delton Hall during the mediocre 1980’s. And the Cowher Era was frustrating until the Steelers finally won the Super Bowl in 2005, but if anything it strengthened my resolve as a Steelers fan, especially when the Patriots became their nemesis.
When I moved to New York from Rhode Island, fellow Red Sox fans told me to not to turn into a Yankees fan. I told them that if living in New England when the Patriots won three Super Bowls didn’t convert me into a Patriots fan, nothing the Yankees do will flip me, either.
Not long after Super Bowl XIV, I caught a foreshadowing of what was to come. I read a newspaper article about one (or more) of the Steelers players pondering retirement. After reading that story, I went to my mother and said: “Mom, I might not be liking the Steelers anymore.” My mother never raised an angry hand to me. But if there ever was a time when I needed to be smacked around, it was then. But my buyer’s remorse about choosing the Steelers soon passed. I went into the next season fully equipped with Steelers gear and ready to cheer them on again.
Problem was, the Steelers plummeted back to earth. They were getting old. I still enjoyed Christmas in 1980, but it just wasn’t the same because there were no playoffs for the Steelers. It taught me something about sports. I learned that athletes get old and not as good as they used to be. If I knew then what I know now, the Steelers’ decline would have made a lot more sense to me.
It’s a damn good thing I didn’t have to deal with 2006 as a wide-eyed 9-year-old. But enough looking back. There are three more Vince Lombardi trophies to be won until 2010. It’s not too late to wrest the Team of the Decade title away from those damn Patriots. The bar has a new manager. Welcome to the 'Burgh, Mike Tomlin. Ya' got a championship on tap?
Finn McCool’s: 1992-2007
By Mike Batista
July 6, 2007
For a while there, it looked like we’d actually make it to training camp without any bad offseason Steelers news. No such luck.
Last summer, it was Ben Roethlisberger’s motorcycle crash. This summer, it’s the closing of Finn McCool’s. Finn’s, located in White Plains, N.Y., was a special place. I watched the Steelers win Super Bowl XL there. First “The Sopranos” ends and now this. How much more can I take?
They say Pittsburgh’s a shot-and-a-beer town. I did it the other way around on Feb. 5, 2006. I drank a few beers while watching the Steelers win the Super Bowl. Then, after the game, I did a shot with a guy I met from Connecticut who, like me, has that rare Steelers-Red Sox fan blood type. Can’t remember his name. Who knows if we’ll ever cross paths again. All I know is it won’t be at Finn’s. A (Steelers) Nation mourns.
This sad day brings to mind some of the goofy, off-the-wall, sometimes annoying (to others, not me) things this out-of-town (out-of-ton for you Pittsburgh readers) fan has done to watch the Steelers. Rarely is it as simple as turning on the TV at home. Usually it involves going to a sports bar with a satellite dish. I’ve compiled a list of the 10 most entertaining stories that demonstrate the lengths I go to in order to watch the Steelers. Such dedication will be crucial in bringing my loyal Steelahs.com readers a fresh take on every Steelers game this season. Or it will just prove that I’m a sick bastard who needs help.
10. Ravens 30, Steelers 13 (Sept. 19, 2004)
I had one eye on my Red Sox and one eye on my Steelers. The Red Sox were on their way to winning their first World Series in 86 years, and the Steelers were on their way to winning 15 straight games and reaching the AFC championship game. Neither of those outcomes seemed possible as I watched on that Sunday afternoon at Tickets in Newport, R.I. The Yankees beat the Red Sox to take two out of three in the series. The Steelers not only lost their game, but they lost Tommy Maddox, who hurt his elbow. But history was at a turning point, for both of my teams. Maddox's injury allowed Ben Roethlisberger to make his debut. Four weeks later, he led the Steelers back from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Cowboys 24-20. Later that night, the Red Sox, down 3-0 to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, won Game 4. Neither of my teams would lose again in 2004.
9. Ravens 31, Steelers 7 (Dec. 24, 2006)
Strange things happened in 2006. The Steelers were losing and I had a girlfriend. We’re still together, but that doesn’t mean it's OK for the Steelers to keep losing. Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes still flickered, so I wanted to see the game, which was at 1 p.m. My girlfriend was hosting a Christmas Eve party at 2 p.m. Damn. I had to use the dreaded “C” word: Compromise. I didn’t have to show up at the gathering until 3 p.m. That gave me time to see the Steelers fall behind the Ravens 21-7 in the third quarter. I could tell there was no way the Steelers were coming back. So it was relatively painless for me to leave Finn’s. I wasn’t the only guy trying to squeeze in a little football before honoring holiday obligations. Standing next to me was a Patriots fan from Woonsocket, R.I. I lived in Woonsocket before I moved to Newport. This guy married a White Plains woman and was watching as much of the Patriots game as he could before going to his holiday party. Another example of the magic of Finn McCool’s. Strangers … had so much in common. You thought I was going to break into a rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin,” didn’t you?
8. Steelers 34, Patriots 20 (Oct. 31, 2004)
Four days after the Red Sox won the World Series, the Steelers ended the Patriots’ 21-game winning streak. New England sports fans couldn’t have everything. But I could. No letdown for me. Earlier in the week, I was jumping for joy with fellow Red Sox fans. But those Red Sox fans were also Patriots fans. I couldn’t play with them anymore. Yeah, I felt a little guilt, but that passed as soon as I saw Tom Brady on his ass.
7. Steelers 26, Oilers 23, OT (AFC wild-card game, Dec. 31, 1989)
Some big brother I am. My sister and her friend went out in the early evening and needed me to give them a ride home. I did, as soon as the game was over. After the game, I had plans to go out for New Year’s Eve with three friends, none of whom were sports fans. They came to pick me before the game was over. Of course, I wasn't leaving until the end of the game. Fortunately, two of my friends were entertained by a Playboy magazine I had in my bedroom, and the other one was simply entertained by my antics as I watched the game. The Steelers ended a mediocre decade on a high note. The next decade turned out a little better.
6. Steelers 34, Ravens 31 (Dec. 29, 2002)
Steelahs.com readers who have been with me since the beginning (all two months) know that I attended this game at Heinz Field. It was supposed to be about a 10-hour drive. It took me a little longer. I left Newport at about 8 or 9 in the morning and didn’t get to the hotel until about 10 at night. A couple of wrong turns and a dozen or so rest stops conspired to make the trip longer. But it was worth it. The Steelers were down 31-20 with seven and a half minutes left in the game when Tommy Maddox led a comeback. He would lead another comeback against the Browns the following week in an AFC wild-card game. By the time I got to Western Pennsylvania, it was dark. I drove through a seemingly endless stream of hills and tunnels with a snow squall thrown in. But when I got out of the last tunnel, I looked to my left and saw the bright lights of Pittsburgh across the river. I felt like Andy Dufresne when he came out of the sewage pipe. Apologies to Bill Simmons. I’ll keep these “Shawshank Redemption” references to a minimum.
5. Patriots 24, Steelers 17 (AFC championship game, Jan. 27, 2002)
The Steelers, and at least one of their fans, took the Patriots too lightly. Kordell Stewart talked about how he was looking forward to going back to New Orleans and hanging with his buddies before playing in the Super Bowl. Bad idea. This Steelers fan thought he could stroll into Tickets, which was packed with Pats fans, in full Steelers regalia and watch the Steelers win in the company of disappointed Patriots fans. Another bad idea. “The Bus has square wheels, man,” one drunk Patriots fan said to me. If Stewart had just kept his mouth shut, and I had stayed home to watch the game, maybe the Steelers would have won and beaten the Rams in the Super Bowl. Maybe by now they’d be working on One for the Other Thumb. Ah, what could have been.
4. Patriots 30, Steelers 14 (Sept. 9, 2002)
I was working for a traditional media outlet and was able to get a credential. Because I had to be back at work at 7 the next morning (it was a Monday-night game), I went about 31 hours without sleep. But that was the least of my problems. I’m mildly claustrophobic and hate elevators. I’d always been afraid to be stuck in one. Well that night, it happened. Gillette Stadium was brand spanking new and we were told there were still some kinks to be worked out. Apparently, the elevator was one of those kinks. Another reason to hate the Patriots. Eventually, I made it to the press box, where there's supposed to be no cheering. That didn’t matter, because I had nothing to cheer about. After the game, I sat five feet from the podium when a humbled Bill Cowher, followed by Kordell Stewart, came out to talk to the media. Cowher looked like he had just learned a family member had died. When reporters put their tape recorders on the podium just before he started speaking, he looked at each one as if he was mesmerized by the contraption. And Stewart’s eyes were red when he got to the podium. He looked like he had been either smoking pot or crying. It wouldn’t be long before he lost his job to Tommy Maddox.
3. Steelers 34, Ravens 15 (Sept. 7, 2003)
I had just spent a week in Las Vegas, where I bet on the Steelers to win the Super Bowl. They went 6-10 that year, but the odds were 7-2, so I wouldn’t have made much money, anyway. We left Vegas on Saturday and arrived in Boston in the wee hours on Sunday morning. I drove from Worcester, Mass., to Newport, which took more than an hour, and went to bed. Jet-lagged, I woke up and drove to Tickets, but it was almost 1 p.m., and the parking lot was blocked off. Tickets was full. I had to scramble to find another place. So I found a hole in the wall called Oddball’s. I met a couple of other Steelers fans there. But the place was kind of dinky. There were less than a dozen people there. Not nearly as rockin’ as Tickets. And there was way too much NASCAR memorabilia on the walls for my taste. To get there, I drove across a parking lot with more cracks than a nude beach. There was construction, so I was directed to the place by orange, spray-painted arrows on wooden panels. The bar was in a complex that also housed a seedy nightclub and a bowling alley. It was a far cry from the glitz and glamour of Vegas 24 hours earlier.
2. Steelers 27, Bengals 13 (Oct. 23, 2005)
Having just moved to New York, I was visiting family in Rhode Island on Saturday, and I embarked on the three-hour drive back to New York Sunday morning. I got to the dearly departed Finn McCool’s just in time for the 1 p.m. kickoff. Tired from the drive, I ordered a coffee. I met another Steelers fan, and he wondered what the hell I was doing ordering a coffee at a sports bar. I found out this guy, who was from Pennsylvania and had been a Steelers fan since long before the dynasty years, worked at the same place I did. We’re both looking for another place to watch the Steelers now. The highlight that day was Hines Ward mimicking Chad Johnson’s Riverdance after scoring a touchdown. Good times. And they would just get better.
1. Steelers 41, Browns 0 (Dec. 24, 2005)
I felt like shit. I still don’t know what the hell it was. I had a sore throat, muscle aches and for some reason one of my ears was blocked. But I still worked until 2 a.m. the night before, got about three hours sleep and drove four hours (This included the Rhode Island Time Trial. I think I got through the state on I-95 in 42 minutes. A friend of mine owns the record of 37 minutes) to Massachusetts for the Christmas Eve gathering at my father’s house. But first there was a game to watch at the Charlie Horse in West Bridgewater. Probably a good thing it was so one-sided. I was so sick that any intensity might have killed me. With a cotton ball wedged in my ear, I sipped on sodas and enjoyed the third of the eight straight games the Steelers won on their way to finally getting One for the Thumb. Nice place, the Charlie Horse. But it’s no Finn McCool’s. Moment of silence, please.
About the name
“Steelahs” is how the team’s name would be pronounced if their home were in New England. I’m sure I uttered it that way more than a few times as a young Steelers fan growing up in Rhode Island. So the name is a nod to my New England roots, even though I now live in the New York City suburbs.
The original idea for the name of my site was SteelersEast.com. But when I e-mailed the Steelers asking for permission to use their logo, they responded by saying that I’m not allowed to use their logo OR the name Steelers on any fan Web site. There are dozens of Steelers fan sites that incorporate the name “Steelers” and use their logo, and I probably could have gone ahead and done the same without a care in the world. But I had to be the squeaky-clean good citizen and ask permission. So to avoid copyright infringement (because you know once Roger Goodell’s done with Pacman Jones, he’ll be coming after me. He is from Bronxville, not far from where I live. So he’ll find me. I know he will), I’m working around it by not using the term “Steelers” and in lieu of a logo using enough black and yellow in the design to drive home the point that it’s a Steelers site.
Hopefully, on Dec. 9, there will be a bunch of people, maybe even me, chanting "Here we go, Steelahs! Here we go!" At Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. That would be cool.