Sunday, December 21, 2014

Post-Kansas City thoughts

Playoffs? We can now talk about playoffs?

Yep.

The Steelers locked up their spot in the 2014 AFC postseason with their victory Sunday over the Chiefs. The final score in this one was only 20-12, but it might as well have been 100-0.

The Steelers and Chiefs could have played another eight quarters and Kansas City wouldn't have gotten into the end zone.

Pittsburgh's defense was that good in this game.

A season-high six sacks. Holding Jamaal Charles to 29 yards rushing.

Those were a couple of highlights. But the icing on the cake was Kansas City going 0-4 in the red zone.

Kansas City had the league's second-best offense in the red zone entering this game. But the Steelers held up all day against it.

The defense has now allowed 21, 20 and 12 points in the last three games. Given what this offense can do, that's winning football.

@ The Steelers just might - might - be playing the best overall football of any team in the AFC right now when you look at what they're doing on both sides of the ball.

Yes, the defense is still suspect and the offense goes in fits and spurts - despite its gaudy numbers - but if they beat the Bengals next week, they'll wrap up no worse than the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs.

@ I don't get the NFL sometimes. I have viewed the William Gay "taunting" penalty several times and am not quite sure who exactly he was supposed to be taunting.

Was it Lawrence Timmons? I don't know.

I'm no fan of taunting and I know it when I see it. That was not it.

@ James Harrison had his way with second-year left tackle Eric Fisher, the top pick in last year's draft.

Actually, the Steelers pretty much owned everyone on the Chiefs' offensive line.

The only thing that kept Alex Smith from being sacked 20 times in this game was Andy Reid's sideways passing game.

@ That short passing game, however, also resulted in the game's only turnover.

As we saw from the Steelers when they played the Jets and Anontio Brown fumbled when smacked from behind by a defensive lineman following a short pass over the middle, big guys running down small guys close to the line of scrimmage sometimes results in bad things.

In this case, it was 300-pound Stephon Tuitt destroying Charles and forcing a fumble that the Steelers recovered.

@ The Chiefs devoted a safety to Le'Veon Bell when he came out of the backfield as a receiver.

That, however, freed up tight end Heath Miller to catch seven passes for 68 yards.

That doesn't sound like a lot until you consider KC came into this game having allowed an NFL-low 43 receptions by tight ends this season.

Pick your poison with this team.

@ Martavis Bryan caught just one pass in this game, but it was a big one. Bryant got deep out of the slot for a 44-yard gain on Pittsburgh's first possession.

I thought offensive coordinator Todd Haley called a very good game. He mixed things up and Kansas City's defense never really got a finger on the pulse of what the Steelers were doing offensively.

Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just one time and though the Steelers produced just 68 rushing yards, they ran the ball effectively enough that KC had to respect it.

@ It's official. The Steelers and Bengals will play at 8:30 p.m. next Sunday. Place should be rocking.

Steelers-Chiefs Game Day thread

Greetings from Heinz Field.

It's a nice December day here. Little wind and temps in the 40s.

Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Justin Brown, Clifton Geathers, Chris Hubbard and Matt Spaeth are down for the Steelers.

Spaeth, to me, is the big one today. With him down, the Steelers could be forced to use Mike Adams some at tight end as an extra blocker.

For Kansas City, no real surprises on the inactive list. Dwayne Bowe and Tamba Hali were questionable coming into this game, but both are active.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Who I like, Kansas City version

This is perhaps the most critical game of the Steelers' season.

Win, and they're in the playoffs. Lose, and they're back in the same situation they found themselves in a year ago, needing to win and get help to get into the postseason.

Here's why:

A loss to Kansas City would give the Chiefs the tiebreaker over the Steelers and give them identical records.

If the Steelers lose to Kansas City and Cincinnati beats Denver Monday night, Pittsburgh is in trouble.

They would then need to beat Cincinnati and hope that San Diego knocks off the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 17 to get into the playoffs, much the same way they needed Kansas City to beat San Diego lats season.

The Steelers can assure they don't need to worry about any of those scenarios by taking care of business Sunday.

And as it has been all season, the key will be their offense.

The Steelers need to get off to a fast start and force the Chiefs out of their comfort zone.

Kansas City wants to play things close to the vest, run the ball, play the field position game and win the war of attrition.

But if the Steelers come out and, say, score on their first couple of possessions, Kansas City will be forced to reassess its attack.

If they get the feeling they aren't going to be able to slow Pittsburgh, they'll be forced to open things up. And that's not what you want to do when Alex Smith is your quarterback.

Smith is a fine game manager. But he's not going to win a shootout with Ben Roethlisberger and company - at least not with the weapons Kansas City employs,

Le'Veon Bell will be the key.

Kansas City allows 4.9 yards per carry and has been torched over the past month by far lesser backs than Bell.

The Steelers need to establish Bell and then have Roethlisberger attack off of that.

If Kansas City is effective on early downs, that allows Justin Houston and Tamba Hali to get after the quarterback. And that's when bad things happen.

I think the Steelers will control the line of scrimmage and win this game.

Pittsburgh is a 3-point favorite and I like the Steelers to win, 30-21.

@ The Steelers will have a limited number of tickets available for a potential home playoff game the weekend of Jan. 3 or 4.

Tickets will be available beginning at 10 a.m. Sat., Dec. 20. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com or by calling 1-800-745-3000.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mid-week news

After sitting out the past two games with a knee injury, James Harrison looks like he's more than healthy enough to return for the Steelers this week against Kansas City.

The  question now is whether or not the Steelers will play him?

At this point, it looks like they will, something I wasn't so sure of earlier in the week.

But if they do play Harrison, who sits?

The Steelers have dealt with a similar issue at inside linebacker the past two weeks with everyone finally healthy. They have dressed all four the past two games, with rookie Ryan Shazier playing sparingly.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said that Shazier hasn't been used more defensively because of he hasn't been where the team wants him to be in practice.

He also said that even though Marcus Gilbert practiced at right tackle last week, he decided to keep Mike Adams there because Adams had looked better - and more healthy - at practice last week.

The Steelers might be putting Harrison, Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones in similar situation this week.

All three have been full participants at practice. The Steelers could take a look at who looks the best and go with those two, putting the other on the inactive list.

@ Kansas City is something of an enigma.

The Chiefs are one of just five NFL teams that enter this weekend averaging less than 200 yards passing per game. They haven't had a wide receiver catch a touchdown pass all season.

And yet they are second in the NFL in red zone offense in touchdown percentage, scoring TDs at a 67.5 percent rate.

Defensively, they allow 4.9 yards per rushing attempt but have given up just two rushing touchdowns this season. They rank first in the NFL in red zone defense.

And though they do get after the passer, recording 38 sacks, they have allowed 39, a big number for a team that doesn't really throw the ball deep all that often.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin met with the media today in advance of the Steelers' huge game with the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday and had plenty to say.

In regards to the decision to play Mike Adams at right tackle last week at Atlanta over Marcus Gilbert, who practiced Thursday and Friday, Tomlin said Adams looked better in practice than Gilbert, who has been out three of weeks with an ankle injury.

That will be looked at closely again this week.

@ Tomlin said similar decisions will be made with James Harrison and Ike Taylor, though I'm hearing the Steelers aren't in a hurry to push either one back into the lineup.

That's somewhat surprising with Harrison in particular. But the Steelers are working toward getting Jarvis Jones back on the field more moving forward.

Tomlin said he's been pleased with what he's seen of Jones since he's returned from injured reserve two weeks ago.

@ Tomlin said he's been happy with how his team has responded in what is, essentially, the first playoff-type race for a number of the younger players.

Remember, the Steelers have had a lot of turnover from the last time they made the playoffs - 2011 - and for a number of these guys, this has been their first exposure to this type of atmosphere.

"I just liked the way out young guys, in particular, wore the urgency of the moment," said Tomlin.

@ Tomlin also commented on Shamarko Thomas' lack of playing time saying that he's stuck behind some veteran players, and more importantly, "His progress was slowed in the middle portion of the season. He had a high-ankle (injury) that not only caused him to miss some games but miss some quality practice time and limit that practice time. ... this journey that we're on is much like a moving train. Sometimes injuries get you off that train and it's difficult to get back on."

@ Tomlin spoke similarly of rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, who has played sparingly the past two weeks despite now being recovered from an ankle injury.

Shazier also missed time earlier in the season with a knee sprain and Tomlin said he's been pleased with the play of Sean Spence and Vince Williams.

And then there was this telling statement, "Detail, detail, detail. It's more about that for a young guy than the physicality of it anyway. ... If you don't understand your leverage and where your help is, you are going to be exposed. So much of that is above the neck and so much is displayed in a practice setting."

In other words, the Steelers haven't been happy with Shazier's practice and preparation.

This doesn't mean he's a bust or anything like that. Remember, Troy Polamalu took a year to get up to speed in the Pittsburgh defense, as well. And Williams struggled last season when he was basically thrown into the lineup in place of injured Larry Foote. But he's stepped in and played very well this season.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Post-Falcons thoughts

Sunday's game had a familiar feel to it as the Steelers dominated the first quarter only to lead 6-0. They had already done that in losses at Cleveland and to New Orleans at home this season.

But William Gay had other plans.

Much-maligned over the years, Gay has quietly turned into a very good cornerback. I say quietly because Gay refuses to talk about himself.

Even after Sunday's game-changing interception return for a touchdown, Gay refused to talk about anything but what a great team win this was and how it was a much-needed victory.

In many cases, you appreciate a guy who puts the team before himself. But come one, Will, you can open up and talk about how you're the only corner in Steelers' history to have three pick-6s in one season.

@ That interception was huge. It was the game's lone turnover, and the fact the Steelers scored off of it was big.

The offense had put up a bunch of yards in the first quarter but had already stalled twice. Gay showed the way to the end zone.

@ Atlanta really sold out on stopping the run and doubling Antonio Brown.

And some of the other guys stepped up and made big contributions.

Ben Roethlisberger was 9 of 10 when targeting Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller for 138 yards.

It was a big step forward for Wheaton, in particular. All too many times this season, Wheaton has looked out of sync with Roethlisberger in road games.

That was not the case Sunday.

* The defense gave up some yards, but came up with some big stops, as well.

Holding Atlanta to a pair of short field goals in the third quarter was huge, as was a three-and-out in the fourth quarter.

Gay and Vince Williams deserve credit for hammering Harry Douglas to the ground on second and third down to keep him from getting the first down.

* Head coach Mike Tomlin said he basically made Marcus Gilbert a healthy scratch because Mike Adams was healthier than Gilbert.

He might want to re-think that strategy moving forward, though Gilbert will certainly be really healthy now.

Same goes for James Harrison.

* I've watched football a long time and covered the NFL for nearly half my life. If Jason Worilds did anything to warrant a penalty flag for his sack of Matt Ryan in the second quarter, I'm not aware of it.

In fact, it was a nearly textbook hit. He didn't lead with his helmet. He didn't hit Ryan high. He did put him to the ground in a not-so-nice way, but that's kind of the idea of football - at least it used to be.

* The Steelers won a game in which Le'Veon Bell was limited to 47 yards on 20 carries. That's significant.

Equally as significant was the fact that while the Steelers struggled running the ball overall, they were able to convert on third-and-short running it a number of times and score a pair of rushing touchdowns.

It wasn't a strong running game. But it was effective when it needed to be.

* If things play out the way they currently look, the Ravens will have played three rookie quarterbacks to close out their season.

They faced Blake Bortles Sunday, will get Tom Savage next week at Houston and Johnny Manziel in Week 17.

Baltimore doesn't have any healthy defensive backs but it won't matter.

The Steelers had better keep winning if they want a home playoff game.

Steelers-Falcons game day thread

Greetings from Atlanta.

James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Dri Archer are among the Steelers inactives.

Marcus Gilbert also is a late scratch for the Steelers. He was probable for this game and practiced all week, so he must have had a setback Saturday or in warmups.

For the Falcons, Julio Jones and corner Robert Alford are out. I'm also hearing that starting safety William Moore will be down as well.

I expect the Steelers to have plenty of success attacking this secondary.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Who I like, Atlanta version

First things first, I do not expect Julio Jones to play for the Falcons in this game, not that he won't want to.

But Atlanta's path to the playoffs is a simple one. If the Falcons win their final two games, they will be the NFC South champions.

If they beat the Steelers and lose the following week at New Orleans, they likely won't.

Because of that, I expect the Atlanta coaching staff to sit Jones.

That certainly helps the Steelers, but the Falcons have enough other dangerous offensive players that they can beat Pittsburgh.

But I don't expect that to happen (I know, I wrote here Sunday night that I wouldn't pick the Steelers again this season, but I have to follow my gut).

Atlanta's defense is, well, horrible. The Falcons are the only defense in the NFL allowing more than 400 yards per game. It's only saving grace is that it does force some turnovers - 24 this season.

But if the Steelers take care of the football, they'll be fine.

While Atlanta's offense is explosive, the Steelers' has been better this season. And Pittsburgh's defense, for all of its flaws, is better than Atlanta's as well.

Yes, the Steelers have stubbed their collective toe a few times this season - I don't want to hear about past losses against poor teams. Anything that happened before this season is ancient history.

But the Jets had a defense that could challenge the Steelers. And New Orleans had a future Hall of Fame quarterback and an emerging running game.

Only the Tampa Bay loss is completely inexcusable. And had the Steelers worked things a little differently in the fourth quarter, they win that game.

Matt Ryan is not Drew Brees. He's a good but not a great quarterback - one that's a lot closer to Andy Dalton than he is Tom Brady.

And the Falcons don't have a running game to compliment Ryan as the Saints did with Brees.

The Steelers should score plenty in this game - Vegas agrees, the over-under in this game is 56 1/2 - and so should the Falcons.

But I like the Steelers, whop are favored by 1 1/2 points, to pull out a 41-34 win.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Steelers think they can stop Jones

When the Steelers signed Brice McCain as a free agent in the offseason, few thought much of the move.

But McCain has played pretty well for the team this season.

He also has quite a bit of swagger.

The Steelers go into Sunday's game at Atlanta needing a victory.

Here's what McCain and others had to say about stopping Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones:

http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20141211/SPORTS0403/141219837#.VIpuGjHF-Gc