Friday, November 28, 2014

Who I like, New Orleans version

I've heard all of the angst surrounding this game.

"The Steelers sometimes lose to bad teams." "Drew Brees is dangerous." "This game could be a trap because the Steelers play the Bengals next week."

I think it's all a bunch of mularkey.

It is precisely because of those three things that the Steelers won't lose this game.

Yes, at 4-7, the Saints aren't a very good team. But they do have Brees, which should have everyone's attention - most notably, the guy who wears No. 7.

Ben Roethlisberger gets pumped to play against other great or big-name quarterbacks, especially at home.

And because the Steelers know they can't afford a stumble before giving Cincinnati their best shot, they'll be focused as a team as well.

Roethlisberger went as far as to call this a must-win game. The Steelers will treat it as such.

With Brees at quarterback, the Saints can score. But the Steelers will take a similar tact to the one they did against Indianapolis earlier this season.

They'll try to keep the ball out of Brees' hands while also putting up as many points as possible. They won't back off the throttle.

And New Orleans' defense isn't nearly as formidable as the one in Indianapolis.

The Saints give up big yards on the ground and through the air. And they'll do stupid thins like play Cover-0, with seven or eight pass rushers and no safety help.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can't help himself. It's what he does.

With Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, two guys who are built to beat one-on-one coverage, that's a recipe for disaster.

And Roethlisberger is at his best when blitzed.

The Steelers also are getting healthy at the right time - right tackle Marcus Gilbert's ankle injury in practice this week notwithstanding.

The Steelers are 4 1/2-point favorites in this one and I like them to force a couple of turnovers and win this one going away, 38-27.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tuesday with Tomlin

Mike Tomlin sounded much more positive about the situation regarding the availability of safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor today than he did about linebacker Ryan Shazier or nose tackle Steve McLendon.

Tomlin said the decision surrounding the return of those four players from injury would, of course, be determined by their participation in practice this week. But he also noted that Polamalu and Taylor have "decades" of experience while Shazier, in particular, has missed a lot of practice time for a rookie.

The Steelers won't rush Shazier back, though he could see playing time in certain situations this week.

McLendon, meanwhile, has missed three of the past five games with a nagging shoulder injury. If he's able to fully practice this week, it would give the Steelers an interesting decision to make on their defensive line.

Do they sit Cam Thomas, who for reasons beyond my ability to see, continues to see more playing time than rookie Stephon Tuitt and can also serve as the backup nose tackle, or do they sit Tuitt or rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers?

I know what everyone else feels about the situation, but for whatever reason, the coaching staff remains tied to Thomas.

@ Tomlin said today that cornerback Cortez Allen suffered a broken thumb in practice two days before the team's last game against the Tennessee Titans. Allen played in that game on special teams but had surgery during the bye week.

He's in a cast now and with Taylor coming back, would be bumped to the fifth cornerback spot.

That doesn't mean Allen won't be active against the Saints this weekend. He could still play special teams. But his ability to make any kind of push to get back into the lineup is certainly hampered.

Ironically, the game book from the Tennessee game incorrectly lists Allen as a starter in that game. He was obviously confused with Will Allen, who started at safety in place of Polamalu.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Monday news, notes

The Steelers, as expected, got a number of injured defensive starters back for practice today as they returned from a weekend off.

Cornerback Ike Taylor, who had a broken forearm, said he has been completely cleared by team doctors to return to full practice.

Taylor has been working out with the team during practices for much of the past month and it wouldn't surprise me if he's back in the starting lineup when the Steelers play New Orleans Sunday.

Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, safety Troy Polamalu and nose tackle Steve McLendon were back on the field today as well.

It appears the defense will be as healthy as it's been since the Carolina game in late September.

@ Jarvis Jones started practicing today as well. That means the clock starts ticking on his comeback.

The Steelers now have 21 days to either activate him or place him on season-ending injured reserve.

Jones said he will still be forced to wear a brace on his injured wrist, but said it felt good today.

Jones had a broken bone and ligament damage in his wrist. He said he still must do rehab exercises every day in an attempt to build the strength back in his hand.

That will be an ongoing process. At this point, if he returns, it would be the week before the Steelers host Kansas City Dec. 21.

@ I spoke with some players in the past week about social media usage. Here's what they had to say: http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20141123/SPORTS0403/141129753#.VHOwU4vF-Gc

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Steelers could move into first place this week in the AFC North while on their bye. That's how crazy things have been in the division this season.

Even more crazy? The Cincinnati Bengals could go from first place to last place.

Here's who I like in this weekend's games involving the division:

Cincinnati (plus 2) at Houston
The Texans went into Cleveland and won last week to knock the Browns out of first in the AFC North. Now, they’ll knock the Bengals out of the top spot.

Take Houston, 27-23

Cleveland (plus 3) at Atlanta
The Falcons are 4-0 against the NFC South, 0-6 against everyone else. But they’re 4-6 and in first place in the division. Cleveland is 6-4 and in last place in the AFC North.

Take Cleveland, 24-20

Baltimore (plus 3 1/2 ) at New Orleans
The Saints have lost two in a row at home to fall to 4-6 but are tied for first in the NFC South. Baltimore, like, Cleveland is 6-4 and tied for last in the AFC North. Saints should regain their home mojo.

Take New Orleans, 31-24

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blount to Patriots and other notes

LeGarrette Blount cleared waivers and was signed by the New England Patriots on Thursday, two days after his release by the Steelers.

It brings up an interesting question. Some people within the Steelers organization feel that Blount made a calculated move by leaving the field prior to the end of regulation in the team's 27-24 win over Tennessee Monday night because he wanted out of Pittsburgh.

Blount was unhappy with his role with the team, which had gotten increasingly less in recent weeks - remember, he was introduced as a starter early in the season, even though he was only getting a handful of carries each week.

And the Steelers' plan going into the game against the Titans was to run Le'Veon Bell almost exclusively, which turned into exclusively given the damage he was doing against the Titans.

Could Blount have contacted the Patriots, who were short at running back after a season-ending injury to Steven Ridley, secretly to gauge an interest?

Perhaps. But I don't think so.

It's easy to come to those kind of conclusions when the Patriots are involved. After all, they have been known to push the rules.

But I really believe Blount's reaction was more spontaneous. He celebrated a touchdown with Bell early in the fourth quarter and likely thought he might get some carries down the stretch as the Steelers ran out the clock at the end of the game.

But when Bell got 12 fourth quarter carries, I'm sure that didn't sit well.

@ Ike Taylor said he has an appointment Monday with Dr. Jim Bradley to see if he's cleared to return to contact.

If he is cleared, he should be ready to return to the lineup. Taylor has been practicing for nearly a month.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Steelers cut ties with Blount

Mike Tomlin sent a strong message through his locker room today. You're either with us or against us.

Cutting LeGarrette Blount had to be a difficult decision for Tomlin.

On one hand, you had a player who had been something of a problem. First was the incident in August when he and Le'Veon Bell were pulled over on their way to the airport for a preseason game and charged with possession of marijuana.

And during the practices with the Buffalo Bills, Blount had to be pulled away a couple of times from going after Buffalo players when minor fights broke out.

Monday night was the final straw, as Blount left the field early in the closing moments of the Steelers' 27-24 victory at Tennessee. Not only did he do that, he left the locker room early, before Tomlin had spoken to the team, and had to be ordered back into the room by assistant coach Joey Porter - with whom Blount had also nearly fought during a backs on backers drill in Latrobe.

But the Steelers also are very thin at running back now without Blount on the roster.

Their only experience at the position behind Le'Veon Bell now consists of Dri Archer's eight career carries. Josh Harris, the player promoted from the practice squad to replace Blount on the roster, was an undrafted rookie who wasn't signed by the Steelers until they had other injuries at the position in training camp.

Tomlin had to weigh those things when he made the decision to give Blount his walking papers.

Bell was on the field for 71 of the Steelers' 74 offensive plays against the Titans. Blount was in for just one play.

Bell is an every-down back to be sure, but the Steelers are going to need more out of Archer for sure while also figuring out ways to incorporate Harris into things. They now cannot afford an injury to Bell.

Post-Titans thoughts

Stylistically, there won't be many points given out for the Steelers' 27-24 win over the Titans Monday night.

Then again, maybe there will be.

After all, Le'Veon Bell's 204-yard performance was just the fifth 200-yard game by a Steelers running back.

Willie Parker had two and Frenchy Fuqua and John Henry Johnson had one each. Period.

For a team that for a long time prided itself on being a hard-nosed run-oriented offense, that's hard to believe.

@ The Titans really worked hard to protect rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger from the numerous blitzes that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau sent at him.

But in the second half, even though the Steelers didn't get any sacks, they did get in the rookie's wheelhouse a couple of times to force bad throws.

Don't think for a second that Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt didn't pick defensive coordinator Ray Horton's brain about what LeBeau liked to run and when he liked to run it.

Both are former Steelers assistant coaches and know LeBeau well.

@ LeGarrette Blount reportedly left the field in the closing minutes of the game after being told Bell was going to finish things off.

Blount wasn't in the locker room following the game.

Though he saw some snaps, Blount didn't get any carries in the game as Bell carried the entire load, getting 33 of the team's 36 rushing attempts. Roethlisberger had the other three, two on kneel downs at the end of the game.

If Blount did, indeed, leave before the game was completed, that was not a good, or smart, move by him.

I'm sure head coach Mike Tomlin will have some kind of punishment for him, even if it's not made public.

@ The offensive line set a goal of getting Bell, who had just 21 carries in the previous two games, 150 yards rushing in this game.

@ It appears that Markus Wheaton has found a home as the team's kick returner.

@ The Steelers need to figure out why it's taking Roethlisberger three quarters to get going in road games this season.

Pittsburgh has scored one or fewer offensive touchdown in four of its six road games this season - though it had two in this game.

It also has failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first three quarters of four of its six road games, including Monday night's contest.

@ The Steelers ran 21 plays in the fourth quarter to just seven for the Titans.

@ The bye comes at a much-needed time for the Steelers. They were without six starters from their opening day lineup on defense.

They should get at least a four of those guys - Ike Taylor, Ryan Shazier, Troy Polamalu and Steve McLendon - back coming out of the bye.

Jarvis Jones also will start practicing soon. The other starter, cornerback Cortez Allen, was benched due to his play.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Steelers-Titans game day thread

It's a chilly night here at LP Field in Nashville, a perfect night for the Steelers to come out and re-establish their running game with Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount.

The Steelers (6-4) need a win in this one to move ahead of Cleveland and Baltimore, who are both 6-4, in the AFC North standings, though with Pittsburgh on a bye next week, that could again turn into a three-way tie for second or last in the division, depending on how you want to look at it.

As we already know, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Steve McLendon, Ryan Shazier and Shamarko Thomas will be out today for the Steelers.