Friday, November 30, 2007

Player salaries

USA Today has a searchable database of player salaries for all 32 NFL teams. A direct link to the Steelers' page can be found by clicking here. This season, S Troy Polamalu is the highest paid player on Pittsburgh's roster ($11,576,920).

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Steelers: Keep it real

Reading "Steelers want to keep it natural" in today's Tribune-Review, it's clear that the Steelers' players would prefer to stay with grass at Heinz Field.

And while the playing conditions on Monday night were far from ideal the NFL has seen worse. Much worse. Recall September 30, 2001 at Carolina's Ericsson Stadium. And on August 13, 2001 a preseason game at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium had to be cancelled.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Steelers drop in PFW Power Ranking

This week the Steelers dropped from #5 to #6 in Pro Football Weekly's Power Ranking. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger is holding steady at #5 on PFW's MVP Meter. Predictably, Willie Parker has fallen off the list. And, as has been the case all season, no Pittsburgh rookie is among the top 30 on the publication's Rookie Meter.

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Forget Arians' play calling, here's a real issue

In the wake of the Jets loss and Dolphins win there has been considerable hand-wringing among fans, bloggers and beat writers alike about the problems with Bruce Arians' play calling. Personally, I don't see any problem with the plays being called; the issue is that the offensive line hasn't played very well in the past few weeks. And when the OL struggles the plays--no matter what they are--don't work.

Meanwhile, a true worry that no one talks about has to do with Mike Tomlin's decision making on fourth down. In the Dolphins game, there were two fourth down plays in which Tomlin made the wrong decision. First, the Steelers should never have attempted the 44-yard field goal that Jeff Reed missed. In those conditions it would have made more sense to go for it or punt. Second, the Steelers also failed to convert on a fourth and 3 just inside Dolphins' territory; it would have been prudent to punt in that situation, thereby pinning Miami deep in its own territory.

The decision making on fourth down has been an issue on several other occasions this season. So far it hasn't come back to bite the Steelers, but sooner or later Tomlin's over-aggressiveness is going to cost them a game.

In terms of predictions ... with the win over the Dolphins "What are the Chances...?" is now 9-2 on the season and 22-5 all-time.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Dolphins: What are the Chances...?

Forget about the individual matchups and forget that key players like Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes are out with injuries. If Pittsburgh plays anywhere near its collective potential the Dolphins have no chance. But as we know, last week Pittsburgh failed to put its breast -- I mean, best -- foot forward against the 1-8 Jets, so one never knows....

Of course, the big storyline for Steelers' fans will be the less-than-triumphant return of former Steelers' LB Joey Porter, who hasn't done much thus far in Miami. In a recent post we noted that Pro Football Weekly named Porter the worst FA signing of the past offseason.

As for our prediction, "What are the Chances...?" is giving the Steelers an 85 percent chance of defeating the Dolphins (our highest percentage to date). The only thing really holding us back from going to 90 or 95 percent is the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is banged up and there are those key injuries to consider. Still, the Steelers haven't lost a Monday Night home game since the Chuck Noll era, and it's difficult to imagine the Dolphins breaking that streak.

But this raises an interesting question: If the game is close late in the 4th quarter would Steelers' fans begin rooting for the Dolphins? I highly doubt it; it's not like Miami is 0-15 or anything. But consider this: Back in the early '80s I went to a game at New York's Shea Stadium between the 0-14 Saints and the hometown Jets. With the outcome in doubt late in the 4th, Jets fans began rooting for the hapless Saints, who squeaked out a one-point victory and narrowly escaped a winless season.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Offensive line not getting the job done (spin)

One of this week's "spins" in Pro Football Weekly (PFW) concerns the Steelers' offensive line. Click here to read the report.

Meanwhile, PFW still has the Steelers at #5 in its Power Ranking (behind New England, Dallas, Indianapolis and Green Bay). Ben Roethlisberger is at #5 on PFW's MVP Meter, while Willie Parker has dropped to #9. It's hard to believe Parker is still in the Top 10, however. Naturally, no Steelers' rookie even warrants a mention among the long list of rookies on the Rookie Meter. While Pittsburgh seems to have drafted five legitimate NFL players this year, none of the five is making a significant impact this season.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Jets 19, Steelers 16 (OT)

Today’s game was a shining example of the advantage afforded teams coming off a bye week. On the second play of the game the Jets executed a trick play that went for 56 yards, setting up New York’s one and only touchdown. I’m certain that sometime during the Jets’ extra week of preparation the coaches noticed that Steelers’ CB Ike Taylor is quick to abandon his pass coverage responsibilities on running plays and thus especially vulnerable to flea flicker-type fakes. Needless to say, the Jets looked to exploit that vulnerability right away, and it was the difference in the game.

Of course, the Jets deserve plenty of credit for doing enough to win. As if the 19-16 OT loss wasn’t enough, Jets RB Thomas Jones broke the Steelers’ streak of 34 consecutive games of not allowing a 100-yard rusher.

More importantly, the game highlighted a few ongoing problems: Never mind the kick coverage, the Steelers’ offensive line isn’t as good as the national media makes it out to be. Today, Pittsburgh never got its run game going (Willie Parker rushed for 52 yards) and the offensive line allowed a season-high seven sacks. And once again, the team started slowly on the road against an inferior opponent.

In my opinion, Ben Roethlisberger is making the offensive talent around him look better than it really is, but even Big Ben isn’t going to be able to lead the team back from 10, 14, and 15 point deficits on a regular basis. Look for the Steelers to focus on the offensive side of the ball in the 2008 draft.

"What are the Chances...?" is now 8-2 on the season and 21-5 all-time.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Joey Porter: Worst free-agent signing of all-time?

Pro Football Weekly (PFW) has already published its list of best/worst free-agent signings of the year. Not only is Joey Porter (Miami Dolphins) listed as worst of the year, PFW postulates whether Porter will go down as one of the worst free-agent signings ever. Steelers' fans will get a chance to see Porter in action again next week. Meanwhile, has anyone been watching Miami games to see how he's been playing?

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Jets-Steelers trade that never was/The "Heidi game"

In the 2000 NFL draft the New York Jets held four first-round draft choices, none as high as the Steelers' first-round pick that year (8th overall). The Jets coveted WR Plaxico Burress, and New York offered to give the Steelers two first-round picks (#12 and #18, I believe), in exchange for the 8th pick. Much to my chagrin, the Steelers rejected the trade and went on to select Burress. The Steelers would have been better off making the deal and selecting QB Chad Pennington along with a highly-rated defensive player. Taking a chance on Pennington would have been a worthwhile risk back in the Kordell Stewart era.

Anyway, since Jets fans may be taking a peek at this blog today, I'd like to remind them that today is the 39th anniversary of the infamous Heidi game. Click here for details.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jets: What are the Chances...?

This week the Steelers visit the New Jersey Meadowlands to take on the 1-8 New York Jets. Most NFL fans assume Pittsburgh will win by a wide margin, but here are five reasons why the Steelers could struggle:

1. The Steelers have been dominant at home this season but are just 2-2 on the road, losing at Arizona and at Denver.

2. The Steelers' kick return coverage has been poor this season and the Jets feature a big play return man, Leon Washington, who has returned three kicks for touchdowns this year.

3. Despite a 1-8 record (the lone win coming against winless Miami), New York has been more competitive than its won-loss record might indicate.

4. The Jets are coming off a bye week and have had two weeks to prepare.

5. QB Kellen Clemens was recently installed as the Jets' new starter (replacing longtime QB Chad Pennington). As NFL observers know, sometimes teams get a temporary lift when a promising new starter takes the reigns. Plus, there may not yet be enough tape on Clemens for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to identify the best ways to defend him.

Still, it's obvious that most of the matchups favor the Steelers, especially the QB matchup. Steelers' QB Ben Roethlisberger boasts a 110.2 passer rating, including a 120.0 rating in the fourth quarter of games. Expect Pittsburgh to employ its usual offensive game plan, passing early and often in hopes of building a lead and then transitioning to a run-oriented attack in the second half.

On defense the Steelers have been more conservative than usual this season, but that could change against the Jets. Inexperienced QBs like Clemens typically struggle against the Steelers' complex defensive schemes, and Pittsburgh figures to go out of its way to confuse Clemens with a diverse array of blitzes.

Even history is on the Steelers' side: Pittsburgh is 16-2 all-time versus the Jets, including 9-2 on the road. With the Jets having a down season, the stadium could be filled with Steelers fans, making the Meadowlands feel like a home away from home. "What are the Chances...?" gives the Steelers an 80 percent chance of defeating the Jets.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Roethlisberger Reaching New Heights

A new article in Pro Football Weekly (PFW) chronicles Ben Roethlisberger's development. Roethlisberger has moved up to #5 on PFW's MVP meter, while RB Willie Parker has fallen to #8.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is currently at #4 in the magazine's Power Ranking behind New England, Indianapolis and Dallas, and just ahead of Green Bay and San Diego. For what it's worth, Cleveland has moved up to #12, Baltimore is at #19, and Cincinnati is at #26.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Browns let Steelers off the hook

To paraphrase former NFL coach Dennis Green, the Browns "let them [Steelers] off the hook" today. Leading 21-6 in the second quarter, the Browns seemed poised to move into a first place tie with the Steelers in the AFC North. Truth be told, the Browns dominated the first quarter-and-a-half, as the Steelers appeared to be suffering from a Monday Night hangover. Eventually the Steelers got going and pulled ahead, only to allow a second long-distance return (flashback to PR Eric Metcalf !) to KR Joshua Cribbs. Luckily for the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger was able to engineer a game winning drive, leaving the Steelers 7-2 and in firm control of the division.

"What are the Chances...?" is now 8-1 this season and 21-4 all-time.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Browns' Holly calls Ward a cheap-shot artist

In a story in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer, Steelers' WR Hines Ward defends himself against accusations by Browns LB Daven Holly that Ward is a cheap-shot artist. If you recall, Ward was penalized for unnecessary roughness and fined $5,000 for a hit on Holly during the September 9 game between the two teams. As I see it, Ward went over the line with the shot on Holly, and the league saw it the same way.

But there's no way that Ward is a dirty player, a charge also leveled against him this week by Ravens LB Bart Scott, who was on the receiving end of a wicked Ward block just last Monday. Ravens' safety Ed Reed was also pulverized by Ward during that same game, and now the Ravens are whining because they apparently don't feel its very wide receiverly for a wide receiver to be raining punishing blows on defenders.

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Browns: What are the Chances…?

On Sunday the Steelers play a Cleveland team that has won three consecutive games and seems poised to contend for a playoff spot, especially when one considers the Browns’ soft remaining schedule. However, it’s worth noting that most of Cleveland’s success has come against teams with losing records, and it remains to be seen whether Romeo Crennel & Co. are ready for prime-time, so to speak.

There is no doubt that WR Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow present a serious challenge for Pittsburgh’s secondary, and both figure to make their share of big plays. Edwards and Winslow have enabled QB Derek Anderson to put up big numbers at times, but again, most of his success has come against lesser teams. One major difference between this game and the earlier meeting is that the Steelers’ pass rushers probably won’t be able to exploit rookie LT Joe Thomas like they did in the opener. Thomas has since been playing at an All-Pro level and he’s a big reason why Cleveland’s offense has been having success.

On the other side of the ball, the Browns’ defense could again have a lot of problems stopping Ben Roethlisberger & Co., especially when the Steelers attack via the pass. On the other hand, if it turns out that Big Ben’s mobility is affected by monday night’s hip pointer the offense could be compromised somewhat, especially in light of the struggles often experienced by the Steelers’ O-line.

Our sense is that Cleveland is definitely a team on the rise, but still not likely to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh. We estimate the Steelers’ chances of winning this game at 65 percent, our optimism muted somewhat by uncertainty about Big Ben’s health, the short preparation time, and the fact that Cleveland has been on a roll.

What are the Chances…? is 7-1 this season and 20-4 all-time.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

The ramifications of extending Big Ben's contract

Our last post ("Steelers' plans for extending Roethlisberger's contract") generated a lot of reader comments here at The Steelyard. While everyone seemed to agree that the Steelers should extend Big Ben's deal, no one could seem to agree "when" would be the right time. So maybe it's time to go over some of the ramifications of keeping Roethlisberger in the fold long-term.

This season Roethlisberger's base salary is just a shade over one million dollars and his salary cap charge is $2.276 million. In 2008 he is scheduled to earn $1.357 million (cap charge $2.627 million), and in 2009 $1.707 million (cap charge $2.977 million). (These scheduled cap charges are lower than they will be in actual fact, but only an insider would know what contract bonuses Ben is earning; those have to be added after-the-fact). Regardless, the point is that right now Roethlisberger is a bargain relative to his performance. As soon as he signs an extension he is going to be very expensive, and that will have ramifications in terms of the Steelers' ability to sign and retain other players.

So contrary to what some fans seem to believe, extending Roethlisberger's contract is NOT going to free up money or cap space. In fact, the impending change in Ben's contract status has already been affecting the Steelers' player-personnel moves for some time now. Going forward the Steelers will not be able to re-sign certain veterans (Alan Faneca being the first "victim" of this) or bid for certain free agents because Roethlisberger will be taking up a much larger percentage of the team's cap. In the future, some veterans will also lose their jobs to unproven (i.e., less expensive) rookies for the very same reason.

So will the Steelers end up re-signing Roethlisberger two years early? Yes, probably. It's good for Ben because he would receive more money (and more guaranteed money) sooner rather than later. And it's good for the organization because it would establish long-term certainty in regards to the all-important starting QB position. But since one never knows what will happen on the injury/health front it has the drawback of committing a lot of money and cap space prematurely. And we all know that Roethlisberger is not exactly the second coming of Peyton Manning in terms of health and durability.

One need look no further than the AFC North to illustrate the risks of re-doing a contract early: Recall that the Bengals re-worked Carson Palmer's deal just three-and-half seasons into his six-year rookie contract. A few months later Palmer tore knee ligaments in that memorable playoff game against the Steelers. In hindsight, I'm sure Cincinnati wishes it had negotiated a new deal after he suffered the injury.

Prediction: Most likely not much will happen in terms of serious negotiations until next summer. If I had to guess I'd say Pittsburgh will aim to re-sign Roethlisberger in late August or early September 2008, as the organization will want to make sure he survives next year's training camp and exhibition season without a major injury before committing megabucks to him. At the same time, it wouldn't totally shock me if they decided to wait until after the 2008 season.

As to size of the contract, I won't even try to speculate. But one can be sure it will be, by far, the largest contract in Steelers' history and shatter the team record for largest signing bonus. As always, comments are appreciated.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Steelers' plans for extending Roethlisberger's contract

According to Pro Football Weekly (PFW), the Steelers will look to extend Ben Roethlisberger's contract after this season, in spite of the fact that Big Ben's rookie deal runs thru the 2009 season. Click here to read the news.

Readers: Do you think the organization should look to extend Big Ben's contract during this coming offseason or wait another year?


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

PFW announces midseason All-Pro selections

Today Pro Football Weekly (PFW) announced its midseason All-Pro team. Not surprisingly, no Steelers were on the list. Interestingly, former Steelers’ WR Plaxico Burress (Giants) was one of the two wide receivers selected. Even more interesting is the fact that Cleveland’s rookie left tackle Joe Thomas was one of the two tackles chosen. Click here to view all the selections.

Meanwhile, the Steelers are still at #4 in PFW’s Power Rankings, and QB Ben Roethlisberger is holding steady at #6 on the magazine’s MVP meter (with RB Willie Parker falling one slot this week to #8). As usual, no Steelers’ rookies even warrant a mention on PFW’s Rookie Meter.

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Steelers 38, Ravens 7

As it turns out, The Steelyard correctly predicted the outcome of last night's game ("What are the Chances?" is now 7-1 on the season and 20-4 all-time), but we gave the Ravens more credit than they deserve in our pre-game prediction.

Kudos to LB James Harrison, who essentially had a career year, all within the confines of a single game. Here is Harrison's stat line for last night's game: 10 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 interception, 3 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery. Now compare that with his first five seasons in Pittsburgh: 63 total tackles, 4 sacks, 1 interception, and 1 fumble recovery.

Also, kudos to WR Hines Ward, who delivered several highlight reel blocks on Ravens' defenders, most notably S Ed Reed.

And congrats to QB Ben Roethlisberger, who posted a 158.3 passer rating, thanks to throwing five TD passes in only 16 attempts. In light of the Ravens' obvious challenges on offense and Big Ben's propensity for getting "dinged up," I thought Mike Tomlin allowed Roethlisberger to play too long. I also wasn't wild about the fact that Tomlin allowed Roethlisberger to re-enter the game after he suffered the injury (or injuries). Hopefully, Ben won't suffer any lingering effects or miss time.

Finally, with Baltimore in the rear-view mirror and Cleveland next on Pittsburgh's schedule, I think Steelers' fans might like to be reminded that today is the anniversary of the day Art Modell announced plans to move the old Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Click here to read a blurb about that infamous day in Browns/Ravens history.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Thankful for Big Ben? Me too.

In an earlier post The Steelyard provided a sneak preview of the new Dan Rooney book, "My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL" (Da Capo), in which Rooney lets it slip that he intervened to make sure the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick of the 2004 draft (instead of OT Shawn Andrews, who Bill Cowher apparently preferred). Thank goodness Rooney stepped in and backed Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, who also championed Roethlisberger. This pivotal decision enabled the Steelers to win a Super Bowl, and may well afford the organization the opportunity to win more Super Bowls in the next six or eight years.

Interestingly, it seems like many Steelers' fans underestimate the value of Big Ben. It's hard to fathom how fans can criticize him and say things like, "Big Ben makes me crazy sometimes" or "He makes too many mistakes." Have these fans lost their minds? Or have they simply become spoiled? I'll go on record right now and say that Roethlisberger is already the best QB in franchise history. In this era he may never win four Super Bowls like Terry Bradshaw did but that doesn't change the fact that he has been better ... sooner ... than just about any QB in NFL history. His career record is 39-14 (which rivals the winning percentage of Tom Brady) and if one eliminates the 2006 (accident-appendectomy-concussion) season he's lost a grand total of only six starts (32-6). His career yards per attempt is among the best in NFL history and his post-season record is 5-1. Like every NFL QB he throws interceptions from time to time, but what goes unmentioned is that he fumbles the ball much less often than other QB's. And, as columnist Stan Savran explains in "Thankful for Big Ben", he makes the talent around him look better than it really is.

I think the Steelers have to be concerned that his career may be relatively short, thanks to the cumulative effect of the injuries he has suffered. But let's make no mistake: Big Ben is on course for the Hall of Fame, even if he can't get elected to a Pro Bowl.

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Ravens: What are the Chances...?

This week the oddsmakers have the Steelers as a nine- to ten-point favorite versus the Ravens. That sounds remarkably high, especially considering the results of last season's games (27-0 and 31-7). Sure, the Steelers have improved and the Ravens have slipped since then, but not by that much. And the truth is that the Ravens' defense still matches up better against the Steelers' offense than any other defense in the NFL.

While the Ravens have already suffered losses to three teams (Cin., Cle., Buff.) the Steelers have defeated in resounding fashion, Baltimore is coming off a bye and is much healthier than it has been in a while. The extended rest will allow QB Steve McNair to start the game, which is never good news for Pittsburgh. McNair is 11-4 v. the Steelers, including a 5-3 record and 102.8 passer rating in Pittsburgh. But the key to the game will be how well the Steelers' offense performs against the Ravens' defense, which plays an exceptionally physical style that the Steelers have struggled against in recent years. As a result, this figures to be a nerve-wracking game for Steelers' fans to watch: With Ben Roethlisberger's health paramount to the Steelers' long-term success, the O-line cannot allow the Ravens to get many hits on Big Ben.

The Steelers have lost three games in a row versus Baltimore and haven't beaten the Ravens by more than one point since 2004. If I were a betting man I'd take the Ravens plus the points, especially since Billick & Co. have had two weeks to prepare. But straight up it's another story: The Steelyard gives the Steelers a 60 percent chance of squeaking out a win.

"What are the Chances...?" is 6-1 this season and 19-4 all-time.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Levon Kirkland first-time eligible

Earlier this week former Steelers' ILB Levon Kirkland was nominated for Hall of Fame consideration. It's highly unlikely he will ever be elected but it's still nice to hear. I'll always contend that Kirkland should have been named MVP of Super Bowl XXX instead of Cowboys' DB Larry Brown. Kirkland recorded 10 tackles and a sack that day and was clearly the best player on the field.

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