Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wednesday news, notes

The Steelers looked to be in pretty good shape from an injury standpoint on Wednesday.

Marcus Gilbert, Steve McLendon and Shamarko Thomas were all back at practice. Gilbert and McLendon were back at their usual spots in the starting lineup.

An interesting exchange took place when head coach Mike Tomlin walked through the locker room following practice.

Tomlin yelled over to Mike Adams as he walked by him, telling him to keep "his arrow pointed up," and not to let his lack of a defined role get him down.

It was almost as if he was giving the offensive tackle a pat on the back - as he also did on Tuesday at his press conference - while telling him he was headed to the bench.

Part of being a coach is knowing which guys need a kick in the butt and which ones need a softer touch.

Adams seems like a softer touch kind of guy judging by the way he moped through training camp when he wasn't given a chance to win a starting job.

@ The Steelers have gone with a receiver-by-committee approach in the past two games instead and it's working pretty well.

While Antonio Brown has done his usual damage, catching 19 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore, Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey have combined to catch 18 balls for 257 yards and four touchdowns.

@ Upon further review, James Harrison was given his sack back on Wednesday.

Harrison lost a sack he should have had on Sunday when Troy Polamalu came in and knocked the ball free from Andrew Luck's hand as the quarterback was being dropped from behind by Harrison.

Because of the forced fumble, the stats crew gave the sack to Polamalu, even though it was obvious Harrison had made first contact and was in the process of taking Luck to the ground.

That was corrected Wednesday and it gave Harrison his 15th two-sack game as a member of the Steelers. Only LaMarr Woodley and Jason Gildon had more.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin had some high praise for a lot of guys this week as the Steelers come off their 51-34 win over Indianapolis.

But, just because Tomlin doled out praise to Mike Adams, doesn't mean Adams is keeping the starting right tackle job.

Marcus Gilbert will return this week after sitting out against the Colts with a concussion. And he'll move back into the starting lineup, with Adams, whom Tomlin said played a very solid game, will go back to the bench.

I don't have a problem with that. Gilbert has played well this season after a slow start. But for Adams, playing well in his start was a big step.

@ Tomlin said he still has faith in Cortez Allen at cornerback and Allen will have a chance to compete for a spot to play again this week against the Colts.

With Allen right now, the issue is confidence. He's been in position to make plays. He's just not making them.

Tomlin said he's directed Ike Taylor, who went through similar struggles early in his career, to speak with Allen.

I would expect Allen to sit this week, at least to allow him a week to watch and get his mind right.

Allen is a really, really nice guy. Everything he says is answered with yes sir or no sir.

And maybe he's just too nice right now. He needs to play with more of an edge.

@ Steve McLendon is expected to be back at nose tackle this week. Just in time for the Ravens.

Shamarko Thomas also will be back after sitting the past two games with a hamstring injury. His replacement, Ross Ventrone, will be out this week with a hamstring injury.

@ Ike Taylor is still probably at least another week away from coming  back. But he's getting closer.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Post-Colts thoughts

Boy, I'd hate to be working an Indianapols Colts message board right now. I'd detest having to answer questions about how the defense stinks, the team played down to an inferior opponent and the coaching staff doesn't know what the heck it's doing and didn't have the team prepared.

I've been there and done that.

Instead, this week, we can talk about an offense that has now scored 81 points in its past two games, a defense that beat the bejeezus out of Andrew Luck and a coaching staff that came up with a great game plan and has been pushing the right buttons.

All of those things tie together.

The coaching staff has been force-feeding things to rookie receiver Martavis Bryant. Two weeks ago in practice, the Steelers attempted deep pass after deep pass to Bryant in preparation for the game against Houston.

Last week, it was working him on slants, outs and screens.

Who knows what this week will bring. Bryant is still make a mistake here or there, but his presence on the field sure does open things up for others.

Bryant had five receptions for 83 yards and two scores on Sunday, making him the first rookie to catch TDs in back-to-back games since Emmanuel Sanders in 2010, and the first to have a multiple TD game since Mike Wallace in 2009.

Did the coaching staff wait too long to play the rookie? Maybe.

But right now, it seems like they did it at just the right time.

That's seven receptions for 123 yards and three scores in the past two games.

As for the defense, it seemingly hit Andrew Luck every other time he dropped back to pass - though they did allow the Colts some big plays in the passing game.

The reason for that was because the Pittsburgh corners were jamming the Colts receivers hard at the line of scrimmage to knock them off their timing routes and the short stuff they like to run.

That was resulting in some pressure. But when the Steelers didn't get there, Luck was good enough to make them pay. Ben Roethlisberger and company were just better on this day.

Again, that was a solid coaching move.

Finally, head coach Mike Tomlin, who made the decision to get Bryant into the lineup, seems to be making some other correct moves with his lineup as well.

Sunday, it was taking rookie Dri Archer off the kick returns and then benching Cortez Allen after he allowed a third-quarter touchdown pass.

Archer and Allen both seem to be dealing with the same issue - a lack of confidence.

Allen, in particular, is in position most of the time to make a play on the ball. He's just not doing it right now.

But both he and Archer are and will be in the team's plans.

Remember, all of those people who were saying Mike Adams would never amount to anything have been proven wrong as well.

@ Speaking of Adams, how about the way he and the rest of the offensive line kept Roethlisberger clean in this one?

The Steelers dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

@ I've seen all but one of every game Ben Roethlisberger has played as a pro live and in person.

He played the best game of his career Sunday.

Playing against other top-notch quarterbacks seems to bring the best out in Pittsburgh's quarterback.

Perhaps that's the reason for the Steelers' inexplicable losses at times to "inferior" teams.

Roethlisberger won't need much convincing that next Sunday's game against Baltimore is a big one.

@ Food for thought: Roethlisberger reached 100 career wins in 150 career starts. Only Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady have also done that.

That's pretty good company to keep.

@ Roethlisberger is now 18-1 at home in his career in the month of October. Who knows why that's the case, but it's certainly a trend worth noting.

So, too, is this one. The Steelers are now 6-1-1 against the spread as home underdogs since 2005. And they've now won five of those games outright.

@ At the midway point of the season:

Antonio Brown is on pace for 120 receptions, 1,700 yards and 14 TDs.

Le'Veon Bell is on pace for just under 1,400 yards rushing to go along with 84 receptions for another 800 or so yards.

Roethlisberger is on pace for 4,700 passing yards with 32 TDs and just 6 interceptions.

Most importantly, the Steelers are on pace to go 10-6.

Yes, this is still a team that has lost to Tampa Bay - and Cleveland, though Cleveland is going to win six or seven games this season, so there's no shame in that.

But it also owns a win over Cleveland, Carolina, Houston and now Indianapolis. That's two division leaders - Carolina and Indianapolis - and two teams that don't have losing records.

Still remaining on the schedule are games against just three teams that are at .500 or better, including two with Cincinnati.

The other four games are against the Jets, Titans, Saints and Falcons.

Those are all very winnable games. Steal one or two of the others, and this turns into a very nice season.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Steelers-Colts thread

As expected Marcus Gilbert is out today for the Steelers. Mike Adams will start in his place.

That will leave Pittsburgh with no reserve offensive tackles.

Cam Thomas will start at nose tackle in place of Steve McLendon, who is also out again, while Brett Keisel gets the start at defensive end.

Also down are Justin Brown, Ike Taylor, Shamarko thomas, B.W. Webb and Landry Jones.

Trent Richardson is active for the Colts, but Ahmad Bradshaw will start at running back. Richardson missed all week in practice with a hamstring injury.

Hakeem Nicks will start at WR in place of Reggie Wayne, who is out, while Ricky Jean Francois gets the nod over Arthur Jones at DT. Jones is healthy.

The weather here is perfect, sunny with a light breeze.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Who I like, Indianapolis version

First of all, there are plenty of key players who will be out of this game.

For the Steelers, nose tackle Steve McLendon is out once again, while right tackle Marcus Gilbert is doubtful with a concussion.

This is interesting because the Steelers don't have a backup offensive tackle on the roster and have only Alejandro Villanueva on the practice squad. I felt they would make a move to at least add a tackle to the practice squad during the week, but they didn't do that, either.

They could activate Villanueva from the practice squad to serve as a backup, but he has mostly played tight end in his time on other teams practice squads.

Center Maurkice Pouncey said he was the next option at tackle last week if something else had happened. As the team's most athletic lineman - though David DeCastro is close - that would make some sense, especially with Cody Wallace as the most experienced backup.

But there's no doubt the Steelers are thin up front.

On Indianapolis' side, Reggie Wayne is out with an elbow injury, while running back Trent Richardson is questionable with a hamstring injury. Richardson, the Colts' leading rusher, hasn't practiced all week, so it's highly questionable that he'll play.

While Ahmad Bradshaw has been more valuable than Richardson, he also has a tendency to get hurt. It will be interesting to see if the Colts are comfortable giving him 20-plus touches.

Now, on to the game itself . . .

This is an interesting matchup in that the Colts have a high-powered offense, but also one that turns the ball over at times. Andrew Luck has thrown 19 touchdown passes - 14 of which have gone to the backs and tight ends - but he also has thrown seven interceptions and lost two fumbles.

As a team, the Colts have turned it over 13 times as a team, which is nearly two times per game.

In contrast, the Steelers have turned the ball over eight times in seven games, while forcing nine. Considering it took the Steelers nearly a month to get their first turnover, the nine turnovers - bolstered by three last week - isn't bad.

The Colts have covered up for those turnovers by shutting down opposing offenses. They have allowed just four third down conversions in the past 41 attempts and are allowing just 26 percent to be converted this season.

The Steelers have been decent on third down this season, converting at a 40 percent clip and have two of the NFL's better third-down players in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell.

With those two, particularly Bell, the Steelers should have some success.

The Steelers are three-point underdogs at home in this game, marking just the eighth time since 2005 that Pittsburgh has been an underdog at home.

In those games, the Steelers are 5-1-1 against the spread, with four wins outright.

Despite all of that, I'll take the Colts to win this one, 31-23

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wednesday food for thought

The Steelers are going to have their hands full with the Colts on defense Sunday.

Not only has Indianapolis allowed just four third down conversions in 41 attempts in their past four games, they have 21 sacks.

Amazingly, the Colts have gotten those 21 sacks from 11 different guys. The Steelers have 10 sacks as a team.

@ Of Indianapolis' 19 touchdown passes this season, 14 have gone to the running backs and tight ends.

That doesn't bode well for the Steelers.

Though Pittsburgh has allowed just 10 touchdown passes this season, six of those have gone to opposing running backs and tight ends.

@ Marcus Gilbert, Steve McClendon and Ryan Shazier did not practice for the Steelers on Wednesday, but they did have a surprise partial participant in cornerback Ike Taylor.

Taylor, out the past four weeks with a broken forearm, was able to go through some position drills and did some running today.

A timetable hasn't been set yet for his return, but he's getting close.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin didn't have a lot to say at his weekly press conference Tuesday, less than 12 hours after his team defeated Houston, 30-23, Monday night to improve to 4-3.

But he did say that he expects both linebacker Ryan Shazier and safety Shamarko Thomas to return this week from injuries.

Shazier has missed the past four games with a knee injury, while Thomas has been out a couple of weeks with a hamstring issue.

Getting Shazier back for Sunday's game against Indianapolis will be a big boost.

The Colts throw more to their receivers and tight ends than perhaps any team in the NFL, especially near the goal line. Tight ends and running backs account for 14 of the Colts' 19 touchdown passes this season and 17 of the team's 25 total touchdowns for the season.

Shazier's speed and explosiveness could be a factor in helping defend those kind of plays.

@ On his weekly radio bit with a local station, Ben Roethlisberger said that it was Tomlin who called the end around option pass by Antonio Brown that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown pass from Brown to Lance Moore.

I'm told that was not the case, and Tomlin brushed off questions about who made the call to run that particular play, saying only that he takes responsibility for all of the play calls.

It seems silly, but A. That's a play that the Steelers work on all the time because it's one of their core 2-point conversion plays. And B. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley made the play call.

Some have taken issue with the Steelers calling that play at that time.

But this was a team that had been struggling in the red zone. Why not put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker - who was a high school quarterback, by the way - and let him make a play?

Brown is smart enough that he knows to throw the ball away or tuck it and run in that situation if nothing is there.

Sometimes, Roethlisberger baffles me with the things that he says and why he says them.

@ Tomlin said he felt that Brown's touchdown catch in the fourth quarter should not have been overturned.

The play was originally ruled a catch and there didn't seem to be enough to overturn the play. In fact, Brown later tweeted a photo that showed some separation between his feet and the sideline.

A photo by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review photographer Chaz Palla also showed Brown had both feet in bounds cleanly with the ball in his possession.

But Brown stepped over the line when he tweeted the photo and also made a derogatory comment towards the officials.

He will likely draw a fine from the NFL for that.

Post-Houston thoughts

I've been doing this for a long time and have never seen a game turn so dramatically in such a short period of time.

The Steelers went from dead in the water to up 11 points at halftime before the Texans had time to realize what had happened.

Right after the Steelers kicked a field goal with just over three minutes remaining to cut the Texans' lead to 13-3, I tweeted that the best thing to happen at that point was that Houston was going to have to forego the run from its own 20 if it wanted to put more points on the board.

To that point, the Texans had rushed for 99 yards on 17 carries in the first half.

That's exactly what they did as Arian Foster was stopped for a two-yard gain on first down and the Texans attempted passes on second and third down, resulting in a sack and incompletion.

The Texans took just over a minute off the clock and punted the ball back to the Steelers.

Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Martavis Bryant for his first career catch, a 35-yard touchdown. And just like that, the momentum had turned.

Momentum in football is funny. And unlike any other sport, it's tough to stop once it gets rolling.

In basketball, you can call a timeout to try to change the momentum. In baseball, you can change pitchers. But in football, it has a tendency to feed into itself.

We've seen that a couple of times already this season happen the other way for the Steelers, who have gotten overwhelmed by a wave of momentum in losses at Baltimore and last week at Cleveland.

This time around, however, it was the Steelers who were riding the wave and the Texans who were rolled over.

@ It was interesting to watch the Steelers make changes on defense and with their receivers like a hockey team doing line changes.

They rotated defensive linemen freely, alternating between a nickel and base defense regardless of what package Houston had on the field - attempting, it seemed, to dictate to the Texans what they would do on offense.

And the receiver pairings were interesting. Often times on third downs, the Steelers would take Lance Moore and Markus Wheaton off the field to bring in Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Only Antonio Brown was a constant.

@ A week after being targeted 11 times at Cleveland and coming up with four receptions, Wheaton was targeted just two times and did not catch a pass.

@ Arian Foster rushed for 73 yards on seven first quarter carries. He had 29 yards on his next 13 attempts.

The defense, as a whole, played much better after that first quarter. In fact, 59 of Foster's yards came on five carries on the opening drive.

@ Bryant made an impact in his first game. The Steelers tried four deep passes to him, connecting on just the 35-yard touchdown pass.

But those deep balls helped free up Le'Veon Bell underneath. The Texans tried to cover Bell one-on-one with a linebacker and he made them pay to the tune of eight receptions for 88 yards.

@ That was a gutsy effort by the Steelers offensive line.

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert left in the second quarter with a concussion and Kelvin Beachum and Marquise Pouncey also suffered minor injuries later in the game only to return.

While linebacker Wesley "Ming the" Mercillus was active and made a couple of plays on Roethlisberger with a pair of sacks, J.J. Watt had just three tackles and a sack.

So much for putting Watt in the Hall of Fame by the end of the game, as announcer John Gruden, the king of overstatement, said early on.