Saturday, September 29, 2007


Recently, The Steelyard received a copy of the new book “The G.M.: The Inside Story of a Dream Job and the Nightmares That Go With It,” by Tom Callahan (Crown), which chronicles the last year of Ernie Accorsi’s tenure as general manager of the New York Giants. Of course, the book is of minimal interest to Steelers’ fans, except for chapter 4 (“Plaxico”), which focuses on former Steelers’ wide receiver Plaxico Burress, described by Callahan as having “a sleepy manner and a penitentiary face.”

According to Accorsi, The Steelers “would have loved to have kept [Burress]” … but “Dan Rooney didn’t want to put all of the team’s money into receivers,” preferring to retain Hines Ward. Makes sense.

Meanwhile, Giants QB Eli Manning goes out of his way to defend Burress, saying, “Plax is smarter than what you think, or what he shows you.” Manning relates how he once borrowed Burress’ playbook and says, “When I opened it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He had written all these little notes in the margins--in beautiful handwriting. ‘I’m the hot receiver here.’ ‘I go here.’ ‘I do this or that.’ ‘Somebody else does whatever.’ All in perfect penmanship….”

It’s funny how Manning compliments Burress’ penmanship, as if that compensates for the occasions when Burress takes plays off or disappears from the offense.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Cardinals: "What are the Chances...?"

The outcome of this week’s game is tough to predict. There’s good reason to think the Steelers will beat the Cardinals this Sunday; after all, Pittsburgh is a better, more confident team. And it’s difficult to bet against a healthy Ben Roethlisberger. His career record as a starter is 37-12 (including six playoff games), and he’s 30-4 as a starter if one removes last season (accident-appendectomy-concussion) from the equation. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe he has only one career loss against an NFC team (at Atlanta last year, the game in which he was concussed in the third quarter).

At the same time, there are countless red flags that make this Sunday’s game a dicey proposition. First, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm know the Steelers' personnel and have years of first-hand experience going against Dick LeBeau’s defense. The players can discount this from here till Sunday, but winning and losing in the NFL is a fine line and this intimate knowledge could be a difference-maker. Even more troubling is that Whisenhunt and Grimm understand Roethlisberger’s strengths and weaknesses, and might know better than anyone how to minimize Big Ben’s effectiveness.

Another problem is that the Cardinals have a terrific receiving corps, one which the Steelers’ DB’s might have a hard time covering. Arizona’s pass protection is much improved this year (only two sacks allowed in three games); if the Cards’ QB gets time to throw he might be able to pick apart the Steelers’ secondary. Matt Leinart is scheduled to start the game for Arizona, but if he’s ineffective expect Whisenhunt to turn to backup Kurt Warner (as he did last week versus Baltimore). With ample time to throw, Warner is still capable of carving up a secondary like he did during his time with the Rams.

Meanwhile, I’d be slightly surprised if the Cards run the ball effectively versus the Steelers’ defense, but it’s worth noting that Edgerrin James is the last tailback to gain 100 yards versus Pittsburgh, rushing for 124 yards on 29 carries back in November of 2005.

It would also be a mistake to minimize the Cardinals’ newfound home field advantage at University of Phoenix Stadium. Assuming the Cards choose to leave the roof open, it’s going to be hot (sunny and in the mid-90s, at the very least). That’s refreshingly cool for the home team (which is accustomed to summer temperatures of up to 117 degrees), but warm enough to make the Steelers’ linemen very uncomfortable.

Finally, Steelers fans might recall that Bill Cowher started his head coaching career 3-0 but lost his fourth game (at Green Bay) against an upstart team looking to prove itself against an allegedly superior foe. The same thing could very well happen on Sunday. With so many former Steelers’ players and coaches on the other sideline, I’m sure Whisenhunt's charges will be fired up and play with playoff-like intensity.

We hope we’re wrong but The Steelyard gives the Steelers only a 45 percent chance [loss] of beating the Cardinals on Sunday.

In terms of predicting the outcome of Steelers' games, “What are the Chances?” is 3-0 this season and 16-3 overall.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cardinals a "Sleeping Giant"?

The new e-edition of Pro Football Weekly has a new "Scout's Eye" piece on the effect of former Steelers' coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm on the near-term prospects for the Arizona Cardinals. According to the article, the Cards are most definitely headed in the right direction, in spite of their 1-2 start. In the opinion of The Steelyard, the Cardinals will be the most formidable opponent the Steelers have faced thus far this season, and Arizona's offense could present significant matchup problems for the Steelers' "D".

It should be interesting to see if Arizona plays with the roof open this Sunday and has the Steelers wearing their black jerseys, as the typical Phoenix weather this time of year is sunny and 100 degrees (give or take a few degrees). Or, will the Cards' organization choose fan comfort over competitive advantage and keep the roof closed?

Click here to read the PFW article.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

49ers: What are the Chances...?

The Steelyard estimates that the Steelers have a 70 percent chance of defeating the San Francisco 49ers tomorrow. Both teams are 2-0 but the Steelers have looked considerably more impressive thus far this season. Expect the Steelers "D" to focus on shutting down 49ers RB Frank Gore , thereby putting the game in the hands of third-year QB Alex Smith. Meanwhile, the Steelers offense will have to contend with an underrated and fast-improving 49ers defense that features several impact players (including CB Nate Clements, who is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL). Also, watch for rookie LB Patrick Willis (19 tackles and a forced fumble in the first two games), arguably the leading candidate for defensive rookie of the year. The 49ers best chance is to keep this a low scoring game. If the Steelers' offense is effective early the Niners don't have the firepower to play catch-up.

Of note: The 49ers won the last meeting between the two teams, 30-14, way back in 2003. But Pittsburgh has won 12 of its last 13 games versus the NFC, the lone loss coming last year at Atlanta, when Ben Roethlisberger was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the third quarter.

* "What are the Chances?" is 2-0 so far this year.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Steelers Haven't Proven Anything...? Not Exactly

In today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Mike Prisuta claims that the Steelers have proven little by throttling Cleveland and Buffalo on successive weekends. Don't believe it. Certainly the Steelers have more talent than either the Browns or Bills but one can't take wins for granted in the NFL (remember Oakland last year?). The bottom line is the Steelers accomplished what they wanted to do--to beat two conference opponents in convincing fashion.

Next is a tougher game at home against San Francisco (2-0). But for now Steelers fans should be savoring the two wins, not minimalizing their significance. Click here to read Prisuta's column.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pittsburgh 26, Buffalo 3

This afternoon the Steelers defeated the Bills 26-3 at Heinz Field. In many ways it was a more impressive victory than the one against the Browns last week, as the Bills (for the most part), did not beat themselves. The Steelers might have pitched a shutout if the officials had noticed that Buffalo's kick returner stepped out of bounds in the middle of a 63-yard kickoff return that allowed the Bills to kick a field goal.

Most impressive was the Steelers' pass protection and the fact that the team committed only two penalties (for nine yards). One has to nitpick to find anything wrong with the Steelers' performance: Ben Roethlisberger threw into double coverage on the long pass that was intercepted; it appeared to be the same play that went for a 40-yard TD versus the Browns. And the offense could have done a better job of preserving its timeouts in the first half.

Thank goodness LB James Harrison appears to be okay. Harrison suffered a neck injury on the last play of the first half when he banged his head on NT Casey Hampton's prodigious backside.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Bills: What are the Chances...?

The Steelyard gives the Steelers a 75 percent chance of defeating the Bills tomorrow, a percentage that might be higher if it weren't for the uncertain effect of the Kevin Everett situation on Buffalo's players. Buffalo's banged-up defense figures to struggle against Pittsburgh's passing attack, and Bills' QB J.P. Losman can be expected to make his share of mistakes against the Steelers' disruptive defensive scheme. One area in which the Bills have a clear advantage is in the return game, and one or two big plays on special teams could help Buffalo keep the game within reach.

"What are the Chances?" is 1-0 in 2007 and 14-3 in its history.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bills v. Steelers preview: The QB's

As the third and fourth quarterbacks selected in the 2004 draft, the careers of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (11th overall) and Bills QB J.P. Losman (22nd overall, Tulane) are ripe for comparison.

For his part, Losman has developed slowly but steadily during his three-plus seasons in the NFL, throwing for more than 3,000 yards in 2006 and finishing the season with a career best 84.9 passer rating. Last year Losman outperformed Roethlisberger in most statistical categories, including completion percentage, touchdown & interception percentage, and passer rating.

However, 2006 appears to have been an aberration for Big Ben, his play clearly hampered by the motorcycle accident-emergency appendectomy-concussion trifecta. In contrast, Roethlisberger started the 2007 season strong, throwing four TD passes and posting a 114.3 passer rating in a 34-7 win over the Browns. The national media continues to portray the Steelers as a run-first team, but the truth is that under Roethlisberger the Steelers pass to set up the run. In fact, the key to beating Pittsburgh is to limit Roethlisberger's effectiveness in the first half of games so the Steelers can't transition to a run-heavy offense in the second half. Roethlisberger is 19-0 in starts in which he has 21 or fewer attempts and has lost only three games in his career in which he has attempted 30 or fewer passes.

Other statistics also belie the national media's portrayal of Roethlisberger as a mere "game manager" or "system quarterback." Ben is 30-11 as a starter in the regular season (.732)--second only to Tom Brady (.747) among active QB's--and has won five of six post-season starts. Ben is not a dink-and-dunk passer either; during his first two years in the league he averaged a (Peyton) Manning-esque 8.9 yards per attempt and his career yards per attempt (8.2) ranks among the best in NFL history. Another unrecognized reason why Roethlisberger is so successful is that he rarely fumbles the ball (only 13 fumbles in 42 regular season games).

This Sunday the Steelers defense is likely to force Losman into committing a few turnovers, but the key to the game will be whether the Bills' banged-up defense can keep Roethlisberger under control.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

The Return of "What are the Chances?"

Today marks the return of The Steelyard's unique method of predicting the results of Steelers' games. Instead of simply predicting win/loss, the score of the upcoming game, or relying on the oddsmakers, The Steelyard estimates the Steelers' chances of winning (on a percentage basis) based on how strongly we feel about the likelihood of victory.

In 2006 The Steelyard proved to be a consistently accurate predictor of the Steelers' fortunes. The Steelers were 1-6 in games in which The Steelyard estimated that the team had a less than 50 percent chance of victory. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was 7-2 in games in which we gave the Steelers a 50 percent or better chance of winning. (Naturally, one of those two "losses" was the defeat to the 2-14 Oakland Raiders). Essentially, The Steelyard correctly predicted the outcome of 13 of 16 games last year.

The 2007 season figures to be a greater challenge from a prediction standpoint, as we don't yet have a feel for a Mike Tomlin coached team. The Steelyard a lot of confidence in Tomlin, but we don't know how he will fare as a game manager (utilizing timeouts, officiating challenges, etc.), an aspect of the game where, in our opinion, Bill Cowher made very few mistakes.

With little to go on, we estimate that Pittsburgh has a sixty percent chance of defeating the Browns this Sunday. Cleveland's overall talent level is up from last season, but the QB matchup (Ben Roethlisberger v. Charlie Frye) would appear to weigh strongly in the Steelers' favor. It's worth noting that Roethlisberger has played in only one season opener during his three-year tenure, posting a perfect 158.3 passer rating in a 34-7 win over Tennessee in Week One 2005.

On the other hand, history isn't on Pittsburgh's side as no Steelers' coach has ever won his first game at Cleveland. We'll soon find out if Tomlin can buck that trend.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Remembering Cowher's Debut

With Mike Tomlin's first regular season game as Steelers' head coach now less than a week away it seems appropriate to recall Bill Cowher's head coaching debut, which took place on September 6, 1992 at the Astrodome versus the Houston Oilers. Cowher's charges got off to a very slow start, falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter, allowing a fumble recovery for touchdown and a Warren Moon touchdown pass. But the momentum changed when the Steelers successfully executed a fake punt and RB Barry Foster subsequently scored on a one-yard run. (At his farewell press conference earlier this year Cowher admitted that he tried to call off the fake punt but failed to do so). The Steelers went on to shut out the high powered Houston offense in the second half and vanquished the heavily favored Oilers, 29-24. Cowher went on to win two more games (at home against the New York Jets and at San Diego) before losing at Green Bay in his fourth game.

For what its worth, Chuck Noll also emerged victorious in his debut, beating the Detroit Lions 16-13 way back in 1969.

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AFC North, position-by-position preview

Pro Football Weekly (PFW) has just published an up-to-date AFC North preview, arguably the best and most accurate preview available. As one might expect, PFW considers the Steelers' offensive line as the team's greatest weakness, giving it a "C" grade. Click here to preview all four teams; the Steelers' analysis is at the bottom of the page.

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"The Chief" Returns

On September 18 the one-man play "The Chief" returns to the Pittsburgh Public Theater, starring Tom Atkins as Art Rooney, Sr. Seven performances are scheduled during the six-day engagement (September 18-23, 2007) at the O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue. Sounds like it would make for a lovely evening with the little lady. Steelers fans can use promo code 5488 to receive a 10% discount on tickets.

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Steelers Sign Simmons to Extension

Today, right guard Kendall Simmons signed a four-year contract extension, stabilizing the team's long-term future at offensive guard. The deal includes a $7.85 million signing bonus and will keep Simmons with the Steelers through the 2011 season.

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