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  • Contract extension amounts to a Wing and a prayer

    Last week’s announcement that the Steelers signed punter Brad Wing to a one-year contract extension is puzzling to say the least. No matter how you sort the 2014 punting statistics in the key categories, Wing’s first year with the Steelers was underwhelming at best. To display a vote of confidence to a middling performer by signing him to a contract extension so soon seems odd.

    While Wing did appear in all 16 games last season – no small feat for a Steelers’ punter in recent years – his punting averages (43.7 gross and 38.8 net) ranked in the bottom third of the league. Of his 61 punts during the regular season, Wing dropped just 20 of them inside the 20 yard line. There were only three punters who managed to place fewer balls inside the 20 than Wing in 2014. And I was actually surprised to learn that Wing had just four touchbacks last season. I could have sworn there were twice that many.

    Sure, there’s more to the success of the punting unit than the guy who puts his foot to the ball, but football – at its very core – is a battle for field position. No matter where the offense stalls, the punt team has to give Wing a good snap and keep the rush off him long enough to execute a quality kick. When a ball remains in the field of play, the coverage team can help Wing’s net average by hemming in the return man for a minimal gain.

    Now, I’m not saying Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should be targeting a punter with a high draft pick as they did with Daniel Sepulveda back in 2007. Spending a fourth-round pick on a punter raises enough questions – especially when there are other areas of the team that need to be addressed – but Sepulveda had already suffered a torn ACL while in college. Sepulveda went on to tear the ACL in his right knee for a second time in 2008, injured the knee again in 2010 and was out of the league before the start of the 2012 campaign.

    For Wing to earn the contract extension he signed last week, he’s going to have to do a better job flipping the field in the Steelers’ favor next season. If he can’t do better than he did in 2014, someone else should be doing the job.

     
  • LeGarrette Blount ‘mum’ about leaving Steelers for Patriots

    When running back LeGarrette Blount walked out of the locker room on his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates, then returned only when assistant defensive coach Joey Porter asked him to rejoin team only to watch him walk away again, he may have done it intentionally.  During Media Day leading up to Super Bowl XLIX on Tuesday, Blount was questioned about the incident and whether he intentionally created a situation that would remove him from the Steelers roster.  He simply smiled.

    When asked by the media whether he knew that he would reunite with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick before being dismissed from the Steelers for what the team felt was a serious protocol breach and disregard for team policies.  Blount’s response was a simple smile once again.  Further, when he was questioned if he may have had the idea the Patriots may have been interested in having him return to their team, again Blount smiled widely and laughed.  “I didn’t know nothin’,” was the only words he gave in response to the thread of questions.

    NFL.com released an article on Monday detailing a Blount vs Marshawn Lynch running back debate.  Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook lit up with a wide range opinions, including one by this author, that Blount’s “history” in the league and his early infraction of the NFL substance abuse policy appeared to illustrate a general dismissal of sportsmanship and offered a revealing look at his personality.  Attacks were leveled against those who agreed, with comments ranging from cries of ‘racism’, a lack of knowledge of him as a player or a man to threats so filled with vitriol that Twitter began looking into comments that are against their user policies.  Others simply stated they felt Lynch was a better running back, still drawing abusive responses.

    Many NFL insiders and members of the media have maintained that Blount’s actions while with the Steelers were intentional and pre-meditated.  Blount was released by the Patriots as a free agent and then signed by Pittsburgh where he was given the opportunity to be the one-two punch in their rushing game.  Blount’s run in with law enforcement after being in a vehicle driven by Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell after a traffic stop in which a police officer smelled the odor of marijuana, an illegal substance and banned from usage by NFL players league-wide, caused friction within the Steelers locker room.

    Blount had seven carries in his first two games after the incident and was limited by the Carolina Panthers to 10 carries for 118 yards followed up by four carries in a three-point loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Bell was listed on the depth chart as the number one running back and Blount expressed frustration over not having a bigger role.  Now it appears his rumblings may have been an elaborate plan to return to New England.

    According to Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports, Blount was keeping in contact with his former Patriots teammates, including New England’s leading running back Stevan Ridley.  On Tuesday, Blount referred to Ridley as being “like a little brother.”

    “I stayed close with a lot of guys,” admitted Blount.  “I stayed close with Ridley…Shane Vereen.  I stayed close with all of my running backs…with Devin McCourty.”  Blount added that it was his “brotherhood” with Patriots players that supported him “through everything” that he was going through.  Following an injury to Ridley, Blount rushed for no gain against the Tennessee Titans.

    Blount was called out for committing what many in league circles, including coaches and players, feel is an unforgivable sin – abandonment of his brothers due to selfishness.  With the revelation that Blount considered the Patriots to be his brothers instead, it becomes even more glaring that negative reactions may have been what he wanted all along.  In fact, Blount said, “I wasn’t worried at all,” when asked if he was concerned about not landing with another team.  Just one day following his release, the New England Patriots called him and 48 hours later he was back with Belichick.  Blount’s response to a question about the call from Belichick was, “He just said, ‘Be ready to go’.”

    After a rather disappointing personal performance with Pittsburgh, suddenly Blount replaced the role of fellow rusher Jonas Gray who was no slouch, running for 200 yards and four touchdowns in a game prior to Blount’s reunion.  Blount suddenly became very active, rushing for six touchdowns on 93 carries.

    This will be Blount’s first Super Bowl appearance and while laughing and grinning through his media day appearance, he exhibited what many consider to be his true intentions all along.  Blount reportedly spoke to Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor and defensive end Brett Keisel on Tuesday, but insists he was innocent of any intentional misconduct in order to get back on the Patriots’ roster.  Then, out came the smile and laughs once again.
    As Steelers Gab lead writer Matt Leode stated on January 19,

    Blount is clearly a selfish person, let’s not forget the incident that started his rep as a player that most teams would rather not have to deal with…Yes, that was the start, but giving the devil his due, Blount took the opportunity to run to the Pats after his release from the Steelers, and has made the most of it.

     

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  • Shining Among The Elite: Pouncey, Brown and Timmons

    Antonio+Brown+Lawrence+Timmons+Maurkice+Pouncey+Team+Carter+2014+ProBowl+NFL

     

    Maurkice Pouncey, Lawrence Timmons and Antonio Brown were the Pittsburgh Steelers’ participants in the 2014 Pro Bowl (Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell chose not to play). In a game that was full of big offensive plays and some joking around, the Steelers’ participants shined.

    Brown led team Carter with 9 catches for 96 yards. Brown hands and excellent quickness were on display once again.  His biggest play of the game came on a 30 yard reception. If anything Brown proved he could have a above average game with different quarterbacks. For Pouncey it was a joy for him to play alongside his brother Mike Pouncey.  Pouncey agility and strength was on display once again,proving why he is multi time pro bowler.

    Middle linebacker Timmons recorded 9 tackles which led team Carter. Timmons had to show his speed with so many passes being thrown. Timmons has been deserving of a pro bowl Invitation for the past couple of seasons. With his performance he will definitely be on the radar for another visit if he has a stellar 2015-2016 regular season.The 2015 pro bowl was not the best pro bowl, but for sure was not the worst.  With Brown and Timmons leading their team in their respective categories, it shows that they came to play the game with serious effort which is definitely the Steeler way. It it also a major plus that none of the Steeler players were injured.  With this game being a game to have some fun hopefully Pouncey, Brown, and Timmons will carry that energy into the off-season and beyond.

     
  • Talented receiving corps among Steelers’ strengths

    It’s easy to dwell on what’s wrong with the Steelers following an uneven 2014 season that left players, coaches and fans alike scratching their heads. One position group that didn’t disappoint last season was a talented and productive corps of wide receivers. With plenty of other areas to focus on come draft time, the Steelers would seem to be set at wideout for years to come.

    Antonio Brown rolls out of bed catching the football. His league-leading 129 catches – not to mention the 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns he racked up – have further cemented Brown’s status as a premier pass-catcher. While I could do without the end-zone dances and me-first attitude that No. 84 brings to the field, there’s no doubt who the top receiver was last year – and will be for years to come.

    Markus Wheaton was fourth on the team in catches (behind Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Heath Miller) in catches with 53. He’s demonstrated a knack for chain-moving catches that’s surpassed only by Brown when it comes Steeler receivers. After missing significant time in 2013 with various injuries, Wheaton proved his worth over a 16-game slate in 2014.

    Martavis Bryant is a star in the making. After not dressing for the first six of games in favor of Justin Brown, Bryant utilized a unique combination of size, speed and athleticism to become a weapon in the passing game. Bryant’s eight touchdowns in just 26 catches and a yards-per-catch average of 21.1 provided the Steelers’ offense with a threat that hasn’t existed since Plaxico Burress donned the black and gold.

    The fact that Lance Moore failed to make an impact last season was puzzling. It seemed like a natural fit for Moore to slide into the possession receiver role vacated by Jerricho Cotchery. But whether it was a lack of knowledge of the offense or a failure to mesh with Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger – or both – Moore spent more time on the sideline than he did on the field this season.

    As mentioned above, Justin Brown got the call early on this season rather than Bryant. Hindsight tells us that Bryant should have been in uniform all along – no matter how limited his knowledge of the playbook happened to be. Darrius Heyward-Bey was little more than a decoy in his limited snaps on offense. Heyward-Bey is a free agent and will only be brought back next season if his special-teams contributions are deemed worthy of a roster spot.

    And then there’s Dri Archer. I find myself asking the same question as the coaching staff must have been asking themselves week-in and week-out this season. What do we do with this guy? Sure, he’s fast. I get it. But is he a wide receiver or a running back? At 5-foot-8 and 173 pounds, does he have the size to hold up to the punishment of NFL football? He had all of 17 offensive touches (10 rushes and seven catches) last season. Archer’s value to the team likely translates best to returning kicks, but he was underwhelming in that role too.

    It wouldn’t be a Steelers’ offseason without a few question marks at each position, but the wide receiver group seems to be solid heading into 2015.

     
  • Can the Steelers Find a Pass Rush in 2015?

    Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers

    The wild card loss to the Ravens was frustrating for so many reasons, but one of the big ones was the fact that Ravens QB Joe Flacco seemed to have forever to throw the football.

    When Flacco rolled out no one seemed to be able to catch up to him, and on the Ravens TD that increased the lead to 20-9 he escaped pressure a few times.

    In 2015, the defense as everyone knows, needs to get better, but a big part of that needs to start with a pass rush that put up just 33 sacks in 2014, 26th in the NFL.

    “We need to be able to pressure the quarterback more consistently,” team president Art Rooney II said, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

    “I think that as a defense, we’ve got to get more sacks and put more pressure on the quarterback. That’s a key piece of the puzzle we have to look at as we build this defense going into next year.”

    A lot of that is placed solely on a group of young players, linebackers and D-linemen who need to step up, make a LOT more plays, and make sure there’s heat on the QB in or outside the pocket.

    James Harrison is 36 and a free agent, and while one would think he would be open to a return, the team can’t count on just him, and they need production from players like Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt and others to turn up the heat on QB’s.

    In 2014 Jason Worilds had 7.5 sacks, but overall his play was down from 2013 and he’s a free agent as well. Cam Heyward seems to be stepping into his own, and he also had 7.5 sacks to tie for the team lead.

    In the end though, it’s not enough, and whether it’s through the draft or free agency, the Steelers need more heat – and quickly – if this team is going to be a contender in the AFC next season.

     
  • Steelers Quiet On Polamalu Returning for 2015

    Steelers president Art Rooney II did not commit to bringing back strong safety Troy Polamalu in 2015 even if the eight-time Pro Bowler wants to return, Scott Brown of ESPN.com reports.

    Rooney has said he wants Polamalu to retire as a Steeler, but the safety is coming off a season in which he did not record a sack or intercept a pass for the first time since 2007.

    Polamalu, who will turn 34 in April, has two years left on his contract. He said after Pittsburgh’s AFC wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens earlier this month that it is fair to question whether he has played his last game for the Steelers.

    Polamalu and veterans such as outside linebacker James Harrison, defensive end Brett Keisel and cornerback Ike Taylor all face uncertain futures. Rooney said the team has not made any decision on the four, who were stalwarts on the teams that played in three Super Bowls from 2005 to 2010 and won two of them.

    “We’ll be having conversations internally,” Rooney said Wednesday at Steelers headquarters. “We’ll have conversations with each of those players and others about what they want to do and whether they’ll fit into the plans for next year. There’s a lot of discussions to be had in terms of the next few weeks and months.”

     
  • Taking a Far-Too-Early Look at the Steelers’ 2015 Opponents

    Now that we’re all stuck in the football-free no-man’s land that is the bye week between championship weekend and the Super Bowl (and before you say anything, no, the Pro Bowl does not count), let’s take a blissful look ahead to September and the Steelers schedule for 2015.

    Of course, at this point we only know the opponents. We won’t know the dates and times of the games until the spring, but now that the January war of attrition that is the NFL playoffs has left us with just two teams standing, we can take a look at the Steelers opposition for the upcoming season with a little more clarity.

    The Steelers will play nine games against 2014 playoff teams next season. In addition to the home-and-home dates with division foes Baltimore and Cincinnati, the Broncos, Colts and Cardinals will visit Heinz Field this fall. Road tests against both of this year’s Super Bowl combatants – New England and Seattle – await next season as well.

    Based on the product the Steelers put on the field this season, a tougher schedule – at least on paper – would seem to be an advantage. Sure, the team will still have opportunities to play down to the level of lesser competition against the Browns, Raiders and Rams, but as a whole the 2015 schedule looks to be no bargain.

    A home matchup with the newly Harbaugh-less 49ers and AFC West road tilts against Kansas City and San Diego round out next year’s slate. San Francisco should be primed to rebound from a disappointing finish, and the Chiefs and Chargers were in the playoff hunt until the final week of 2014.

    Surely, some of what we know about these teams will change in the months to come. Players will come and go via the draft and free agency. Others will retire or sustain injuries that will wreak havoc on the depth charts of all 32 teams. But Steeler fans – myself included – have likely already been looking at the list of opponents and trying to pin down next year’s record.

    When it comes to this sort of premature prognostication, I’ve found that members of Steelers Nation fall into three camps – the pessimistic, the unrealistic and the wafflers. No matter what faction you happen to claim membership to, it doesn’t take long for the numbers to escape their lips. The pessimists will offer a quick 6-10 while mumbling something about taking a baseball bat to the windshield of Todd Haley’s car. The unrealistic will want to say 16-0, but they’ll say 15-1 or 14-2 so as not to tip their hand to their belief that next year’s Steelers might just challenge the perfect record of the ’72 Dolphins.

    As a card-carrying waffler, I typically have a tougher time pinning down my prediction – even when the schedule is finalized. My standard response for the past several years has been to cover my bases for anything between 7-9 and 11-5. But rest assured, I’ll spend more time in the next 10 days thinking about the Steelers chances next year than I will acknowledging the existence of the Pro Bowl or fretting over potential punishments for how much air the Patriots did or did not put in a few footballs last weekend.

     
 
 
 
 
 

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