National Signing Day: Where does Pitt stand?

I don’t know what’s tougher to believe: that it’s been over a month since my last post, or that it took something like college football recruiting to break the skid. But since we’re here, might as well talk a little bit about Pitt…

It has already been documented that my prediction about Pitt’s BCS bowl berth within five years from the day Dave Wannstedt was hired fell just a couple points against Cincinnati short of coming true, but there’s no reason to think it can’t happen within the next four years. That is, if you know anything about the recruiting class Wannstedt has collected for next season.

It’s no secret that one of the reasons I was a fan of the ‘Stache’s hiring in Oakland was his desire to establish a local recruiting base. He considers western Pennsylvania a football hotbed and wants to take advantage of the deep talent pool that collects from year to year. This year, he’s taking that concept to the bank, snatching up some of the area’s top-tier talent. Here’s the list of local players you will see in blue and gold next year:

With Aaron Donald and Khaynin Mosley-Smith on the way, Pitt's defensive line should be well-stocked for the next few years

Drew Carswell, WR, Sto-Rox (6’5″, 215): A good combination of size, speed, and skill, and he’s already pretty well-built to take some punishment. He played linebacker on defense and his solid build and strength will allow him to compliment – and eventually replace – Jonathan Baldwin at the split end position.

Aaron Donald, DL, Penn Hills (6’1″, 270): Wannstedt has made a habit of collecting quick, athletic defensive linemen during his time at Pitt, and Donald certainly fits that mold. He was arguably the best defensive lineman in the area his senior year, and his domination during the WPIAL playoffs only proved that. He’s solid, strong, and very agile for his size, and should fit right in the rotation with some experience and good instruction from DL coach Greg Gattuso. He also runs a 4.9 40-yard dash, not too shabby.

Brandon Ifill, DB, Penn Hills (6’0″, 180): He’s definitely not the marquee defensive back coming out of Penn Hills (that distinction goes to Michigan recruit Cullen Christian), but he’s a viable addition all the same to a defensive backfield that could use some raw speed. Ifill is a member of the Indians’ track team, namely, a 100-meter dash sprinter. He was a member of one of the top 400-meter relay teams in the area as a junior, and that speed plays perfectly in a conference whose two-time defending champion has a bunch of speedy wideouts in Cincinnati.

Khaynin Mosley-Smith, DL, Woodland Hills (6’1, 285): On the surface it’s hard to believe he was recruited to play defense, considering he didn’t play on that side of the ball during his senior year. But apparently Pitt’s coaches know the same thing a lot of other people know: he’s big, quick and strong. He ran a 4.9 40-yard dash, bench-pressed 340 pounds and squatted 615 at Pitt’s individual skills camp last summer. No wonder they snatched him up so quickly.

Todd Thomas, WR, Beaver Falls/Milford Academy (6’3″, 210): A year of prep school should serve this top 2009 WPIAL receiver a lot of good academically and physically. He already has a pretty good pedigree that has had a year to develop and now he and Carswell add some quality size and depth to the receiving corps almost immediately. There have been some reports of his immaturity and lack of work ethic, but a year at Milford should quell that if he earns some playing time.

Carswell has size, speed and strength. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti will make the most of his abilities and pedigree just like he has with Aliquippa native Jonathan Baldwin

Kevin Weatherspoon, WR, Clairton (6’0″, 183): Hands, athleticism and speed are this young man’s strengths, but playing in the WPIAL’s smallest classification (single-A) could be the cause for some of his success at the prep level. But if you know what I know and you’ve seen his highlight reel, he’s good enough to change your mind.

  • The topic of Penguins’ owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle’s offer to buy the Pirates seems to be the most talked-about thing in town these days. Whether or not Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting should sell isn’t really important to me. Who signs the checks for a baseball team is nowhere near as important as the where the money is going for baseball operations. Even the larger market teams have shrewd management making their baseball decisions. The Red Sox have Theo Epstein, the Yankees have Brian Cashman, the Mets have Omar Minaya… (OK, so maybe Minaya isn’t the best example). The point is, adequate scouting, drafting and development are what make a competent organization. Just ask the Minnesota Twins, Oakland A’s, and Florida Marlins. The funny part is, the MLB Players’ Union has accused the Marlins of not spending enough money on payroll and they’ve won just as many World Series as the Yankees in the past seven years. In fact, they BEAT the Yankees in 2003 with a $48.7 M payroll, meanwhile New York’s was $107 M higher. Further proof that smart money beats big money.
  • What’s scary about watching Sidney Crosby is he’s already about to pass his career-high for goals in a season (39) and it’s only February. Combine that with the fact that he has gone from one of the worst face-off centers in the NHL to one of the best in only one season, and it’s clear that the best player in the world is still getting better. And what’s worse: he’s only 23.
  • The Steelers have a handful of free agent decisions to make, but the two most important in my opinion are retaining Casey Hampton and Deshea Townsend. With Dick LeBeau returning for another season as defensive coordinator, Hampton’s six-Pro Bowl talent is needed at nose tackle in that 3-4 scheme. And Townsend’s instincts, ball skills and veteran leadership are very necessary in the defensive backfield. It’s disgusting that he’s third on the depth chart at cornerback and he has the best ball skills of them all. Considering that he has practiced at free safety the past few years, plays zone as well as anybody and is considered by LeBeau as the “smartest player” he’s ever coached, just imagine Townsend and a healthy Troy Polamalu as the Steelers’ starting safety duo next season. I would guarantee an increase in (if not double) the amount of interceptions by the Steeler defense in 2010.
  • Duquesne basketball fans better start getting excited about Damian Saunders. He leads the nation in double-doubles (16), is arguably the A-10’s Player of the Year at this point in the season, and I would put him up against anybody as the best player in the country that nobody knows about. And after they get excited about him, they need to thank Marquette for letting him slip away so Ron Everhart could get him.
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Steelers Offense Thrives Despite Struggles This Season

Say what you want about Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense. Go ahead and press charges against head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for grand larceny with how people think they have robbed this team of its fabled smashmouth running style.

But also take the time to look at what this unit has accomplished so far this year.

They are eighth in the league in total yards per game (369.2), seventh in passing yards per game (263.1) and eighth in average time of possession (32:54). All the while, they have contributed to an 8-7 record that would be a lot more favorable if not for six losses in which the defense gave up a fourth quarter lead.

Tomlin and Arians have taken so many questions throughout the season as to why the team’s offensive philosophy has generously incorporated the pass in favor of the run, and their answer has been the same: they want to create balance in the offense.

Let’s start with Roethlisberger. He has completed more than 66% of his passes for 4,108 yards (the first Steelers quarterback EVER to throw for 4,000 in a season) with almost twice as many touchdowns (23) as interceptions (12), all while having been sacked 47 times. Even if he hadn’t passed for a team record 503 yards and led the game-winning drive (perhaps one of the most thrilling in team history) last week against Green Bay, he would still be having, arguably, the most outstanding season in the team’s history for a quarterback.

Let’s face it, the only negatives for him this season are the 47 sacks, the concussion he sustained in the Week 11 loss to Kansas City that made him miss Week 12, and the fact that the mustache he’s growing these days makes him look like Nacho Libre.

NACHOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Roethlisberger’s receiving corps has performed above and beyond expectations this season. Santonio Holmes (78 receptions, 1,243 yards) is adding onto his legacy as last year’s Super Bowl MVP with the type of season that has moved him to the top as the team’s marquee receiver. Hines Ward, another former Super Bowl MVP, the guy who formerly held the marquee receiver title and was said to not only be slowing down, but was also voted the “dirtiest player in the league” (one Steeler called that superlative “retarded” — I’m not making that up) is having one of the best statistical seasons of his career (87 rec., 1,106 yards), and is cementing his status as a soon-to-be Hall of Famer.

Mix in what should be a Pro Bowl season for tight end Heath Miller (71 rec., 733 yards, 5 TDs) and the emergence of rookie speedster Mike Wallace (692 rec. yards, 18.7 yards per catch, 5 TDs), and you have a group where Big Ben can force defenders to pick their poison.

But with all of this success in the passing game, the running game must be suffering, right? Not exactly.

Former first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall has 1,014 rushing yards on only 222 carries for an impressive 4.6 yards per carry (seventh in the league among all RBs with at least 200 carries). The only thing more impressive is that he didn’t become the starter until Week 4, and was benched by Tomlin for, “not being on the details.” It’s safe to say he’s on them now.

So what’s my point in all this? Only that the Steelers have a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers, and a 1,000-yard running back. The Bradshaw-Swann-Stallworth-Harris foursome never even accomplished that. In fact, no Steeler offense has.

Wallace's game-winning TD grab against Green Bay in Week 15 will go down as one of the best catches EVER.

Wallace's game-winning TD grab against Green Bay in Week 15 will go down as one of the best catches EVER.

Say what you what about this offense. Despite the lackluster and inconsistent play of their offensive line, their failures on third downs, and their struggles in the red zone, they’ve done what they wanted to do. In fact, they’ve even gone above and beyond.

Other musings from the holiday weekend:

  • Congratulations to Dave Wannstedt and the Pitt football team for winning the Meineke Car Care Bowl over North Carolina. Not only did they win their 10th game — the first time a Pitt team has done so since the year I was born — they also won a close game that could’ve ended the way their last two games did with a loss. But they hung tough, overcame some otherwise damning mistakes and beat a very good North Carolina program.
  • With National Freshman of the Year Dion Lewis expected to play at least two more years at tailback and some great local recruiting being done by Coach ‘Stache, it’s safe to say Pitt has some great days ahead. I predicted when Wannstedt was hired five years ago that he would win the Big East and make it to a BCS bowl game by his fifth year. I fell one point short in that prediction, thanks to Cincinnati.
  • When Florida head football coach Urban Meyer announced Saturday that he was stepping down in favor of his health and his family, I applauded him. Then he went ahead and changed his mind 24 hours later and said he would only take a leave of absence. So much for the emphasis on his health and family. When he first told his family about his decision to resign, his daughter hugged him and said, “I get my daddy back.” I wonder if she punched him when he changed his mind.
  • Jim Caldwell: If you win the Super Bowl, please invite D-Generation X to the victory parade!

    Kudos to Colts’ head coach Jim Caldwell for pulling his starters in the second half of their loss to the Jets and ending their unbeaten run this season. Caldwell had as many as 20 different players on the injury report over the last two weeks, and he took the opportunity to rest his starters and let some injured players get time to get healthy for the postseason. The goal every season is to win a championship, not to go undefeated (Ask Bill Belichick and the 2007 Patriots if they want a mulligan). Caldwell gets it. If the Colts win the Super Bowl, I hope he leans into the microphone, holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy and tells all his critics he’s got two words for them…

  • The Pirates are receiving as much praise as criticism for their non-tendering of relief pitcher Matt Capps. Capps signed with the Washington Nationals last week for a one-year, $3.5million deal for a shot to be their closer. I’ll break down why Capps had worn out his welcome as a closer at a later date, but I have to scratch my head, seeing that he went from closing for the team with the second-worst record in baseball this past season to the team with the worst record. He must have the same agent as Larry Foote.

In the meantime, I hope everybody enjoyed their holiday season. Till next time folks…

More BCS Propaganda

I’m sure anybody who is a college football fan has, at this point, an opinion about the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Mine is that the BCS is likened to the Magic Bullet Theory, the “Y2K” hysteria and the claim that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

That is to say, it is total crap.

The 2006 National Championship Trophy

Since it has been put in place in 1998, Bill Hancock, the BCS executive director, has been addressed with questions about alternatives to the BCS, the most popular being a playoff. Recently Hancock took the liberty of writing a commentary as to why a playoff system doesn’t function as well as the current system in place.

He makes four arguments as to how a playoff is more complicated or less effective than the current system. I will take the liberty of explaining to you why each of them are not true:

“First,” Hancock says, “playoffs diminish the regular season. The interest of fans, sponsors and others is redirected into the playoff. Now, from August to December, fans nationwide shift their attention from game to game and conference to conference weekly, as teams move up and down the ladder toward the title game. Why would we want to dilute that?”

Let me get this straight, chief. You’re saying that if there was a playoff, the fans and media wouldn’t care about what happens during the regular season? Wouldn’t that determine who would be chosen for the playoff in the first place? As if the participants of any other national championship tournament are chosen by picking random pieces of paper with names of different schools out of a hat!

Also, why wouldn’t fans continue to look game to game and conference to conference, considering they could use the same sideways, goofball math system to find out if their team is in the race from week to week? Or maybe it’s just a hidden way of saying the interest of sponsors is changed because they can’t heap millions and millions of dollars into a bowl game with their name plastered on it.

Oh, right. God forbid a playoff stands in the way of South Carolina vs. Ball State in the Viagra Bowl! (Think about it. If you have to, take a second and look it up…come on, don’t tell me you don’t think that scenario is funny!)

“Second, playoffs burden the fans. It’s unrealistic to ask thousands of college students and fans to travel to faraway places week after week, to follow their teams through a playoff.”

Right! How thoughtless of us! It’s not like Division I-AA — or, excuse me, the “Football Championship Subdivision” — Division II, and Division III football fans have to do that, or basketball fans every spring, or baseball fans every summer.

"Wait, is that the same National Championship trophy?" "Of course it is, the sponsor's name is just different. DUH!"

Oh, wait! They DO!

It’s bad enough there is enough evidence this has been going on for decades, but did Hancock have to go and just slap every other national championship tournament in the face just to belabor a point that he ultimately can’t prove? (By the way, isn’t it ironic the Division I subdivision that has a playoff is actually called the championship subdivision?)

“Third, a playoff would fuel even more controversy, as more teams with similar records are left out. Think it’s tough picking the top two? Try selecting eight or sixteen. This would guarantee additional pressure to expand brackets to uncontrollable levels.”

Now wait a second. Your little computer ranking system spits out 25 names each week, right, Bill? So certainly it must have some difficulty generating a top eight or 10 out of those 25. My, that must be just EXHAUSTING! (Truth is, the updated top 10 are announced every Sunday during the regular season.)

Besides, you’re right, Bill. I just can’t see myself picking between Navy and Central Michigan as to who should get that 32nd invitiation to the playoff tournament!

“Fourth, the vast majority of college athletes will succeed in life because of their classroom — not football — performance. These are college students, not NFL pros.”

You sure Charlie Weis would agree with that, Bob? You mean to tell me that he lost out on his head coaching job at Notre Dame, not because his team wasn’t winning enough games and wasn’t in the National Championship race, but because Notre Dame wasn’t one of the strictest academic institutions in the country?!

Really?! Seriously?!

Furthermore, what about the institutions in the Ivy League that don’t participate in annual playoffs because of their emphasis on academics? If we used those schools as examples, one might be led to believe that statement was true. But then again, when was the last time you saw Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth or Stanford holding a national championship trophy? (Here’s a hint, Bill: Princeton, 1935.)

And for the record, what the hell does that statement have to do with anything? That definitely isn’t backed up the hundreds of boosters backing Division I programs across the country, dozens of recruiting and academic scandals every year and ever-growing average salary for coaches, now is it? Schools aren’t paying top dollar for coaches to teach algebra. They’re paying to win!

The bottom line here is, what Hancock won’t tell you is that he’s fine with the system the way it is because sponsors are able to put up millions of dollars and schools generate higher revenues. National television contracts sweeten the pot and the system is perpetuated on the backs of free labor because although the players are the only ones playing, they’re the only ones in the equation not getting paid. And Bill’s cool with that because as far as he’s concerned, as long as the money is flowing in, the system is winning.

It’s just the fans and the perennial neglected deserving teams that lose every year.

Now that really is crap.

My Heisman Picks

I know what some of you are thinking: J.T., you don’t get a Heisman vote. And you’re right, I don’t, but since everybody and their mother is casting their hypothetical Heisman vote, why not throw mine in too? (And the first person to comment with that what if everybody jumped off a bridge question is getting smacked.)

As most of you may know, the Heisman Trophy will be awarded for the 75th time Saturday night, and the five-man race for this year’s outstanding player in college football includes last-year’s runner up, a former winner, a dark horse on an average team, the best player on the country’s best team, and the first defensive finalist in over a decade.

Even though the top three finalists are usually the ones most discussed in the end, I will break down my final ranking of the five and break down why each player finished where they did. Here goes:

Tebow was his usual spectacular self, but not spectacular enough for a second Heisman

5) Tim Tebow, QB, Florida: I could talk about the National Championships, the wins, and the intangibles that apparently make him more than human. (Isn’t it funny how intangibles never matter until they’re used to inflate a player’s value?) And yes, while he will go down in history as one of the best players in NCAA history, the truth is he was not the best player in the nation this season. While a QB rating of 155.59, 2,413 passing yards, 18 passing TDs and 13 rushing TDs and leading one of the best teams in the country to a 12-1 record all attractive, the one game that took him out of the “outstanding” discussion and deposited him amongst the really, really good was the loss to Alabama.

He was at the centerpiece of the biggest game of the season to date with the perfect opportunity to set the stage for a third straight national title game and the ultimate college football swan song, but he just couldn’t rise to the challenge when his team needed to. Now bear in mind, he did complete 20 of 35 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown, and his defense did allow 490 yards of total offense and 32 points, but when he was supposed to carry his team on his back, he just couldn’t get out of the blocks. So down the drain went the Gators’ title hopes and Tebow’s chance to stand next to Archie Griffin as the second player to win two Heisman trophies.

4) Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: There are a bunch of voters that are hell-bent on making sure that this year’s winner isn’t a quarterback, and I’m not one to blame them for it (in fact, it’s been a belief of mine over the past several years that the Heisman had developed into an award that was only meant for QBs, Reggie Bush being the lone exception in this decade), but if there’s a guy who is going to buck the trend, Ingram isn’t him.

Ingram was good, outstanding even. But he wasn't outstanding enough throughout the season

Yeah, he rushed for 1,500-plus yards with a 6.2 per carry average and 15 TDs, and he paced the Crimson Tide’s offense on the way to an undefeated regular season record and the National Championship game, but was he truly the most outstanding player in the country over the course of the season? Arkansas and Auburn may beg to differ.

Granted, he scored two touchdowns in the win over Arkansas on September 26, but he also gained only 50 yards on 17 carries, hardly a dominating or outstanding performance. And in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, the biggest game of the season for the Tide at the time, he gained only 51 total yards on 19 touches before he left with a hip pointer. Maybe he was hurt before he came out, maybe he wasn’t, but at the end of the day, he didn’t have as strong a track record of dominance as he probably should have. On top of that, he didn’t even win the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s best running back; Stanford’s Toby Gerhart did.

3) Ndamukong Suh, DL, Nebraska: OK, be honest, was anybody else trying to think of a way to make a headline that says “Run Around Suh”? (That song was before my time and a lot of the folks who read this, but whatever, call me lame and cheesy if you want.) Anyway, this force of nature became the late entry in the Heisman race, and it seemed like at the 11th hour, every other ESPN personality just started shouting his name like they were appealing to the governor for a stay of execution.

That isn’t to say Suh isn’t deserving of the honor: he had 82 total tackles, 23 for losses, 12 sacks, and 24 quarterback hurries — and he led his team in all of those categories. A nose guard! On top of that, he broke up 10 passes (second on the team), intercepted a pass and blocked three kicks. A freakin’ nose guard did all that! That should make him a lock, right? Wrong.

Suh was without question the nation's best defensive player, but was he dominant enough consistently to be the most outstanding player in the country?

The Cornhuskers finished their season at 9-4, the last loss being his 12-tackle, 4.5-sack terrorizing of Texas in the Big 12 Championship game. In that game, yes, he played at his highest level on one of the biggest stages, and was definitely the game’s most outstanding performer. But what about those other three losses? Let’s look at them:

  • September 19 (16-15, Virginia Tech): eight tackles, one for a loss, .5 sacks
  • October 17 (31-10, Texas Tech): four tackles, two tackles for losses
  • October 24 (9-7, Iowa State): eight tackles, one for a loss, one sack
  • Total: 20 tackles, four for losses, 1.5 sacks

Yeah, I know he’s a nose guard, and I know he faced double teams for most of the season, and while he may have been one of the best players in the nation this season, he wasn’t the most outstanding. Two of those four losses were good games, but not dominating, and the third was less than stellar. Just like Ingram, if the award is going to go to a non-quarterback, he’s not dominating enough to be the guy.

2) Colt McCoy, QB, Texas: The sad part is if this prediction were to hold up, he would be the only quarterback in NCAA history to win the Walter Camp Award and finish second in the Heisman voting in back-to-back seasons, and it’s not because he didn’t deserve the Heisman. He completed 70.5% of his passes this season for 3,512 yards and 27 TDs (but also threw 12 interceptions, possibly the sole statistic knock against him), and also ran for 348 yards and three scores. Let’s not forget, he’s also the NCAA career leader in completion percentage.

Remember when he took over the win over Texas A&M on Thanksgiving? He ran for 175 yards, passed for 304 and was responsible for five of the Longhorns’ seven touchdowns. He helped guide Texas’ offense throughout the season, and in the critical times his team needed someone to step up, he carried the Longhorns on his back… except for the 16-13 win over Oklahoma on October 17, and the conference title game win over Nebraska.

Sorry, 'Horns fans, but if Tebow can't win it based on his career, McCoy can't win it as a make-up for when he should've won last year

In the Oklahoma game, he threw a 4th quarter interception that could’ve helped the Sooners win if the Texas defense hadn’t intercepted the ball back and saved the game. In the Nebraska game, he helped drive the Longhorns down the field for the game-winning score, but in the closing seconds he almost failed to stop the clock before it ran out, and it took an official’s review to establish that (which some argue was incorrect and will probably be argued from here on out if Texas wins the National Championship).

McCoy was outstanding for the majority of the season and helped put his team in position to win for the majority of the season, but also almost hurt his team’s chances in the process. You can’t be THE outstanding player in the country with blemishes like that on your track record. He probably should’ve won last year, God bless him, but he shouldn’t this year, especially not as a make-up vote. After all, this isn’t the NBA MVP voting, which is almost always a year behind (but that’s a subject for another blog post).

1) Toby Gerhart, RB, Stanford: There’s good, and then there’s dominant. While the previous four were good, Gerhart was dominant, and dominant consistently. He was the nation’s leading rusher and in 12 games this season, he rushed for 100-plus yards 10 times, 200-plus yards twice, and rushed for less than 100 only twice: September 12 against Wake Forest (17 rushes, 82 yards) and October 10 against Oregon State (20 rushes for 96 yards), not to mention the Wake Forest game was the only one where he didn’t score at least once. In nine games he scored at least twice, and in five he scored at least three times.

Not convinced? Fine. Let’s look at how he performed during games against top-tier competition. Look no further than that two-game stretch when the Cardinal faced #8 Oregon and #11 USC. In those two games combined, he rushed for 401 yards on 67 carries and six touchdowns. In three games versus Top 25 teams, he rushed for at least 100 yards and scored at least one touchdown in each of them, and Stanford won, although they weren’t even ranked. Even more, in his last six games, he rushed for at least 100 yards and scored at least one touchdown.

Yeah, Stanford was only 8-4 this season and finished 4th in the Pac-10, but just imagine the Cardinal's record without Gerhart in the backfield

What about his performances in games his teams lost? Great question. In those four games, the game against Wake Forest was the only game that he didn’t rush for 100 yards or find the end zone during the entire season. In the other three, he did his part (96 yards, 2 TDs against Oregon State; 123 yards, 2 TDs against Arizona State, 136 yards, 4 TDs against Cal).

What does all of this mean? It means that in his team’s most important games against their toughest competition, he raised his game and helped his team beat an opponent they otherwise probably shouldn’t have, not to mention the fact that as the season wore on, he got better. He has been the most consistent individual performer in the nation throughout the season, has been the most consistently dominant against elite competition, and has ultimately been the difference between an 8-4 Stanford team and one that without him, might not have even been bowl-eligible.

Gerhart is the player that has truly been the most outstanding throughout the entire season. He has meant the most to his team, and he has performed at a high level the most consistently all season long.

Hopefully the final voting reflects the same. Otherwise, the criteria should be seriously re-examined.

What’s Wrong With the Steelers?

Good news and bad news for Steeler fans: the bad news is, the black and gold have dropped four in a row, leaving them 6-6 and currently on the outside of the playoff race looking in.

The good news is: tonight, they face the NFL’s cure-all, the 1-11 Cleveland Browns. Whatever is ailing your team this season, you can fix it if you play the Browns. They have lost seven in a row, have a total point differential of -167 points, and their only win was a 6-3 snoozer over the Buffalo Bills (4-8).

Seriously, they’re THAT bad. Not to mention they fired their general manager, they can’t figure out who they want to start at quarterback, and half the team hates the coach. (See? It almost makes you forget the problems the Steelers have!)

But in all honesty, let’s put it in perspective here: with the Browns facing the Steelers at home, in prime time on NFL Network, with the opportunity to all but end the Steelers’ playoff hopes? Make no mistake about it: this is Cleveland’s Super Bowl (or, at least their closest equivalent — gotta keep it real, folks). The Browns will not roll over in this game.

Anyway, let’s get back to the Steelers’ problems because they have a few, and then we’ll talk about how to fix them:

1) Pass Defense

  • PROBLEM: The Steelers’ D has allowed the game-winning drive in three of those four weeks, including the game-tying drive against Baltimore. It came to a head last week against Oakland when backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski threw for three touchdowns in the 4th quarter, including the game-winner with nine seconds left. The Steelers’ cornerbacks have yet to intercept a pass in 12 games this season. The team’s interception leader is Polamalu with three, and he has only played in five games. It’s clear why the team’s turnover differential is -5.

    We've seen this scene all too often with Ike Taylor. Only 8 INT's in 104 career games

    Coach Mike Tomlin, formerly a secondary coach and defensive coordinator, has publicly voiced his displeasure with his DBs, saying in his weekly press conference that this is a “first time for me, and of course I’ve been around some secondary play. Not good enough.”

  • HYPOTHESIS: It’s too simple to say Troy Polamalu’s absence is affecting the secondary, much less the whole defense. What’s important is why he’s so vital. He’s the team’s best open-field tackler, has the best on-field instincts, is their best man-to-man defender and knows how to react to the football. When your strong safety is the guy that represents all four of those things, your defense is headed for trouble. There was too much miscommunication, too many blown coverages, and too many missed interception opportunities just on that final drive alone. The Steelers are 4-1 with Polamalu and 2-5 without him because team’s have exploited the defense’s weaknesses that his absence exposes.
  • SOLUTION: There has to be better play in the secondary, better communication in the huddle, and better ball skills all around. This unit has to be more aware when the ball is in the air and, for the love of God, catch it. In each of the last three losses, interception opportunities that could’ve halted game-winning drives were wasted (including two against Oakland — one by IkeTaylor and one by Joe Burnett). Safety Ryan Clark has gotten into the bad habit of looking to make the hit on a receiver, instead of taking opportunities to make a play on the ball and force a turnover. Backup safety Mundy needs to stop trying to be the next Clark; if he’s going to try it, he needs to lead with his shoulder like Clark does (just a thought). Mundy’s careless leading with his helmet cost the Steelers Willie Gay, one of their starting corners (whom he gave a concussion when he missed the receiver), and an unnecessary roughness penalty that put the Raiders in their red zone.

2) Red Zone Offense

  • PROBLEM: The offense has struggled scoring in the red zone during this losing streak. Consider: 0/4 against Cincinnati, 1/3 against Kansas City,¬† no red zone opportunities against Baltimore, and 2/5 against Oakland.
  • HYPOTHESIS: There has been a very bad habit of falling out of favorable field position with Ben Roethlisberger taking sacks and bad play-calling resulting in lost yardage and low-percentage field goal tries. The running game has been abandoned often in short-yardage situations, and

    Best way to score in the red zone? Run the ball and keep Ben off his back!

    third-down efficiency has been low (58/146 for the season – 39.7%).

  • SOLUTION: The best way to succeed in the red zone is to play off your running game. Running plays on first down, if used effectively, can be the difference between a 3rd-and-short and a 3rd-and-long situation. Also, it opens up opportunities for the play-action pass, where Big Ben’s numbers are off the charts. There also has to be better play-calling on third down. The packages, personnel and plays we have seen on third down haven’t reflected the down and distance, and at times the offense seems doomed as soon as it lines up. The lone exception has been in the no-huddle, where Roethlisberger is also very effective.

3) Special Teams

  • PROBLEM: Opponents have scored four touchdowns on kick returns this season, the most recent being against Kansas City, when Jamaal Charles took the opening kickoff 97 yards to the house. They are also averaging over 25 yards per return, and have benefited from favorable field position.
  • HYPOTHESIS: The issue is two-fold. First, the coverage teams have done a horrible job of tackling (remember what I said about Polamalu being their best open-field tackler?). There have been missed tackles that have come in bunches and a lot of bad angles taken by tacklers where the returner is given too much open space to cut back. Most importantly, Jeff Reed has done a very poor job of kicking the ball deep. In 59 kickoff attempts this season, 56 have been returned, and only one has resulted in a touchback. This means he hasn’t been putting many in the end zone, and the ones that have are being returned and, on average, taken further than they would be if downed in the end zone.
  • SOLUTION: Tomlin has already resolved one of the issues of personnel by bringing in Rocky Boiman and Corey Ivy, two veteran players that have made their careers on special teams, and also starters like Ike Taylor and James Harrison have been inserted on kick coverage. But it can’t just stop with personnel. Reed has to put the ball in the end zone more consistently. His 61.0-yard averageper kickoff is his second lowest since his rookie season in 2002, and he has his lowest number of touchbacks since that season.When your kicker can’t kick the ball deep enough, your coverage team can’t get down the field, the opponents’ return team gets more time toset up its blocks, and the returner has a better line of vision, allowing him to pick up speed before the first tackler is within reach. (Special teams rule of thumb: if the return man is at full speed before the first tackler gets downfield and engages a blocker, he’s more likely to break a big return.)

Tomlin has his first real test of adversity as the Steelers' head coach.

Ultimately, these three problems are the difference between what were the best defense against the pass, one of the most efficient scoring offenses, and one of the best kickoff coverage units last season and all three of the aforementioned being totally average this season. But hey, don’t take my word for it, here’s what Tomlin said at this week’s press conference:

“When you’re squandering your scoring opportunities offensively, you’re giving up plays and not making plays at critical moments defensively, you have a pattern of behavior that’s unacceptable, that’s going to produce some losses, which of course is what has happened… Obviously, we’re a very average football team as we sit here today. Our record indicates that, and our recent record indicates that that might be a kind assessment. I’m just being very realistic about where we are, and I think we all need to do that because that’s going to give us the necessary clarity to change it.”

That being said, this team will get back on the right track against Cleveland, or at least they should. If they were to lose, I’d rather not see this team in the playoffs.

After all, if you can’t beat Cleveland, Oakland, Kansas City, or Chicago, how much disappointment could the playoffs bring?

Duped by Dupuis

So one of the many things I feared when I first started covering Penguins practices as a producer fill-in was that I would do something totally embarrassing or out of place, considering how still relatively new to the atmosphere I am. Well, as my luck would have it, my fear came true today… or so I thought briefly.

I was running late for today’s morning skate, pretty agitated with myself because I had forgotten to make my lunch, so I had to go back and make my lunch before heading downtown (it was either that or not eat all day and as those who know me already know, me going without eating isn’t an option).

So, already feeling like a moron, needless to say I was in a rush to get off the subway at Steel Plaza and walk up to the Mellon Arena in time for the open locker room session with the media. I got there to find out not only was I five minutes late, Channel 4 already had someone there. It was John Meyer, one of our sports anchors and one of my favorite people at work.

Not that I was mad to see John, far from it. Turns out it was just a communication breakdown in the sports department and we ended up being double-staffed. You figure that moment would be awkward enough to last the day, right?

Wrong.

Pascal Dupuis in the Pens' locker room. Turns out he's quite the prankster.

In my moment of confusion, attempting to slowly and quietly duck out of the locker room to avoid further embarrassment, someone along the left wall was trying to get my attention. He looked mildly familiar, and then I realized it was speedy winger Pascal Dupuis.

He was pointing at the floor, and at first I thought I had dropped something, but nothing was at my feet. So I looked back up at him, thinking maybe he was

mistaken. But then he pointed again.

I looked back down, thinking maybe I had a shoe undone, but my black Stacy Adams lace-ups (that’s right, I always dress professionally, and quite well, I might add) were tied, both in double-knots. I looked back up at him, wondering what the heck he was talking about.

“The logo,” he finally said. “Don’t step on the logo, please.”

I looked down again, and woven in the middle of the black locker room carpet is a large, gold Penguin logo. Already feeling embarrassed, I looked back up at him and said, “Oh, sorry.”

I figured he would give me some disdainful, “Know your place, Rookie” look, but instead he just laughed.

Just my luck, the first time I encounter one of my childhood heroes is also one of the most embarrassing moments of my career.

Then I thought about how when reporters and cameras are circled around players during locker room interviews, the crowd always spills out to the middle of the room where the logo is.

It took me about 30 seconds to realize I’d been had.

Mildly mad at myself, I shook my head and walked out of the locker room, almost too quickly to realize that one of the people I breezed past was none other than former Penguins’ captain, current part-owner and hockey legend Mario Lemieux.

Great, I thought to myself, I have my most embarrassing moment as a media member and it’s within arm’s length of one of the best hockey players ever!

I eventually laughed at myself  by the time I got out to the parking lot.

City Game Tonight: Duquesne vs. Pitt

There’s a historic sporting event on tap tonight: for the 35th and last time, Duquesne and Pitt will meet for the last time in the City Game at the Mellon Arena. (I want you to take note, JTR fans, because this is one of the few times you will see me act like a shameless fan.)

Both the Dukes and the Panthers are 5-1, with Pitt having won the last eight meetings between the two. The last time Duquesne won was December 21, 2000, when Aaron Lovelace hit the game-winning bank shot with 2.2 seconds remaining in a 71-70 victory.

I was at that game, a sophomore at Duquesne, watching the game with my roommate, Anthony, my long-time schoolmate Jon, and my cousin Nate. I don’t remember jumping up and down that much after any other game. We walked back to my parents’ house in the Hill District talking a bunch of trash on the Pitt fans the whole way.

Yeah… that’s pretty much where our Duquesne-Pitt trash talk ended.

This time the two will meet again at the Mellon Arena for the last time tonight, as the historic venue will give way to the new Consol Energy Center. But I’m bringing a little good luck for Duquesne with me in hopes to re-capture one last Duquesne celebration on the Mellon hardwood.

It’s my 2000-01 Duquesne men’s basketball jersey, #00, worn by none other than Simon Ogunlesi. (Don’t ask how I got it. That’s classified.)

Here’s a pic of my sweet Dukes threads:

Simon Ogunlesi

(Yeah, you want one, too!)

This jersey has serious Duquesne magic. This is the jersey of a man that not only stepped on the face of an opposing Pitt player in that 2000 game, but was also one of 10 brought up on Federal indictment for a credit card and check cashing scheme that totaled nearly $36,000 in June of 1999. He and two of his teammates, Jamal Hunter and Devone Stephenson, eventually were dismissed from the team because of the indictment.

You can’t make up a funnier story of dubious behavior by members of a mediocre college basketball program.

But the point is, Duquesne hasn’t beat Pitt since that day, and it’s time to end that losing streak. Here’s to hoping the Dukes bring back the bragging rights tonight.

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