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.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Steelers-Texans game thread

The weather tonight in Pittbsurgh is perfect for the Steelers-Texans game, though there is a chance of rain later in the night.

Landry Jones, Justin Brown, Ike Taylor, Shamarko Thomas, Ryan Shazier, Chris Hubbard and Steve McLendon are down for the  Steelers.

Justin Brown takes a seat in order  to get Martavis Bryant on the field.

Jadeveon Clowney is down for the Texans.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Who I like, Houston version

The Steelers are an angry team after being beaten, 31-10, last week in Cleveland.

In the aftermath of that loss, they were called out first by they head coach in a team meeting for not being tough, mentally or physically, and soft by former head coach Bill Cowher and teammate Hines Ward on national television.

The moves by all three were meant to prod this team to play even harder, or, as James Harrison said, "If you don't want to be called soft, don't put soft on tape."

The Steelers won't put soft on tape this week against Houston on Monday night.

But this is a tough matchup for them, especially on defense. Houston does well - run the zone stretch - what Pittsburgh doesn't defend well.

A lot of the talk in this game has centered on how the Steelers will block Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. Look, Watt's good. He's scored three touchdowns this season, though one came while lining up as a tight end.

He's got 20 QB hits this season, but just four of Houston's 10 sacks.

Watt's presence hasn't helped the Texans be a great defense. He's a great player. The rest of the defense is truly awful, especially the secondary.

Pittsburgh's defense is 12th in the league in total yards against. Houston is 27th.

So the Texans have some issues of their own.

I think the Steelers offense will break out of its two-game slump and actually score some points at home. But after last week's game I just can't pick them to win, though it wouldn't surprise me if they came out and won for the 16th consecutive time at home on Monday night.

Pittsburgh is a 3-point favorite, but I'll take Houston to win, 27-24

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thursday news, notes

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau confirmed today that cornerback Brice McCain will start in the team's base defense Monday night against Houston.

This, of course, means that Cortez Allen has been bumped. But it does not mean he has been benched.

And there is a difference.

Allen will still play in the Steelers' nickel defense, which means he'll play at least 60 percent of the time against the Texans, so it's not a true benching.

Allen had a tough game last Sunday against the Browns, while McCain has been playing well. McCain also is quite familiar, if not with Houston's offense because of the new coaching staff, then at least with the players. He spent the previous five years covering them in practice.

So it makes sense for the Steelers to get McCain on the field as much as possible against the Texans.

But that certainly doesn't mean Allen is a bust or no longer in the Steelers plans.

In fact, he's hardly the first guy to be replaced, only to come back and be a solid starter. If he needs any help in that department, he need only walk over and ask Ike Taylor about it.

@ Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was limited today after being pretty active Wednesday in practice. He also appeared to shed the knee brace that he practiced with on Wednesday.

@ Todd Haley said today that rookie Martavis Bryant will get some opportunities this week. Of course that has to come at the expense of someone.

The guess here is that Justin Brown is going to lose some PT. The Steelers finally seem settled in on using Lance Moore more often, so Bryant will likely take some of Brown's snaps - if, in fact, Brown is even active.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday news, notes

Steelers linebacker James Harrison had some interesting takes on his team being called out not only by Bill Cowher and Hines Ward, but head coach Mike Tomlin as well.

Here's what Harrison and others had to say about Tomlin saying the team wasn't tough enough mentally or physically:

@ Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was back at full speed at practice today for the Steelers after missing the past three games with a sprained knee.

Shazier said he saw some time with the starters while he was out there and that he felt pretty good.

@ Cornerback Brice McCain said he also worked with the starters at times Wednesday. But he slid back inside when the Steelers went to their nickel defense.

But, as McCain noted, "it was just the first day of practice."

That could certainly change. And even if McCain does play outside in the base defense, Allen would still see plenty of time in the nickel defense.

@ There were some other changes in the lineup, but due to practice reporting  requirements, I cannot report them without confirmation from the players.

It was, however, difficult to ascertain exactly what the Steelers were leaning toward at some positions since the team doesn't put out an injury report until Thursday - because it doesn't play until Monday - and Wednesday was a typical veteran's day off for a number of players, some of whom have actual injuries this week.

Suffice it to say, the Steelers are, indeed, turning over every rock to look at their options, as head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.

@ I looked up the Steelers stats today running the ball in the red zone.

As a team, they have 19 red zone carries, not counting three Ben Roethlisberger knee downs. They have gained 57 yards on those attempts, an average of 3.0 yards per carry, well below their average of 4.9 yards per carry.

Opponents also are not blitzing the Steelers much this season, choosing instead to play coverage against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger,

Roethlisberger is 15-23 for 250 yards, one touchdown and one interception when blitzed this season. But 10 of those pass attempts came against Cleveland in the opener.