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Monday, October 4, 2010

Pittsburgh Steelers 3-1 Start Reviewed

By L. Smalls
It has been said that coaches manage their schedule by quarters, or four games at a time.  With that in mind it is time to take a look at the Steelers’ first quarter of the season and assess their 3-1 start.
QB – (Grade C)
The only reason the QB’s get a C instead of a D is because they went 3-1, although the record could be largely attributed to the stellar play of the defense and a solid running game.  The position has produced a #31 ranking and some of the sorriest numbers any 3-1 team has ever seen.  Only three TD’s (all against Tampa Bay) compared to 4 INT’s while averaging a measly 136 YPG is not the blueprint for winning championships in modern professional football.   Roethlisberger cannot get back onto the field fast enough and Steeler fans need to hope they have seen the last of Charlie Batch in meaningful games this year.
RB – (Grade A)
Rashard Mendenhall picked up the offensive slack and ran with power and speed to compensate for the lack of a downfield passing attack.  Mendenhall’s spin moves and nifty cuts are quickly becoming a sight that keeps the Steeler Nation gasping and high fiving their fellow Black and Gold clad brethren on game day.  The second leading rusher in the NFL has raised his production even while opponents focused on stopping the running game.  Mendenhall is on pace for a season of 1,600 yards and 16 TD’s but that pace could increase with the return of Roethlisberger and the threat of a passing attack. 
Redman and Moore have contributed little on the ground and not much more through the air but all three of the backs have done a good job of protecting the ball (zero fumbles) and helping in pass protection (except Moore’s blown blitz pick up against the Ravens.)  Mendenhall is carrying this group to the “A” grade like he’s been carrying the offense so far this year.
WR – (Grade C)
Most people try to blame the lack of productivity out of this group on the limited abilities of the quarterbacks who have been under center so far this season, but I think there’s more to the story than that.  The shining star has been Mike Wallace.  It’s exciting to think about what he will be capable of when Roethlisberger gets his feet under him and works out the timing issue that limited the duo a couple of big plays in the preseason.  Once Ben gets the confidence to throw the ball downfield with all he’s got without worrying about overthrowing the speedster Steeler fans could be in store for multiple +40 yard TD’s this year.  Wallace proved to be uncoverable on deep routes in the preseason and has carried that into the regular season. 
Hines Ward and Heath Miller have earned their paychecks over the first 4 weeks by utilizing their blocking skills they have become known for while the running game carried the team.  Randle El has been a pleasant surprise as the #3 and once Emmanual Sanders gets healthy and Ben returns this unit should help make the running game even more dominant over the last ¾ of the season.
OL – (Grade B)
Pass protection is again a problem for this unit.  Through the first four games of the season they have surrendered a sack on 11% of their passing attempts (#30 in the league ahead of only Chicago and Arizona).  Some of the blame is attributed to the quarterback play but it seems like for years apologists cry that Ben holds the ball too long and that is why the line gave up so many sacks.  Batch holds the ball too but the line gets the majority of the blame. 
The reason they grade out at a “B” is due to their ability to grind out the 5th best rushing attack without the threat of a passing game to keep defenses honest.  Say what you will about Flozell Adams lacking discipline and getting called for too many penalties for someone of his stature, his presence has undoubtedly helped the running game in Pittsburgh.  Couple that with the outstanding play of rookie Maurkice Pouncy and surprising play of Doug Legursky and the Steelers have more than Big Ben’s return to the field to be excited about starting the second quarter of the season.
DL – (Grade A)
If Steelers’ defensive linemen only have 3 sacks so far this year so you might wonder about the grade of “A” for the unit but don’t get confused by the stat sheet.  These guys know what they’re doing and a huge reason that the defense as a whole has 11 sacks is due to the three guys up front.  Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton continue to make plays that simply don’t directly show up on the stat sheet.  They tie up multiple blockers on pass plays which frees up the linebackers to make the sacks and on running plays they play with a steady consistency that is required for any 3-4 defense to be great.
Brett Keisel has been playing in the shadow of his linemates for years but he is leading the unit in tackles, sacks (tie) and even interceptions returned for TD’s.  The Steelers could not have asked for better bench play from veteran Chris Hoke and young phenom Ziggy Hood.  Their contributions helped sustain the defense when Hampton went down with a hamstring injury and although Hoke is currently mending a sprained knee himself, this unit has shown depth and ability that the team needs to maintain in order to get to where they want to be later in the season.    
LB – (Grade A)
The most dynamic linebacking corps in the league once again resides in Steel Town.  James Harrison is as ferocious as ever with no signs of slowing down.  Any questions regarding that should be directed to Vince Young after Harrison slammed VY to the turf like he tried to steal his lunch money.  Lamaar Woodley continues to impress in this contract year and is on pace for a return trip to Hawaii with more than one of his linebacker mates. 
That third member of the squad destined for Honolulu is Lawrence Timmons.  He leads the league in tackles and flies to the ball in ways not seen in Pittsburgh since Jack Lambert was racking up double digit tackles and covering backs and tight ends like a safety.  Timmons hits with Lambert’s ferocity and is turning into the player the Steelers envisioned when they made him their #1 pick just 3 short years ago. 
Sending three Steeler linebackers to the Pro Bowl may seem like a stretch but would it be possible to see all four there?  Whatever James Farrior has lost in speed he makes up for in intuition and experience.  He won’t make as many highlight reel plays as the others but anyone who watches the games can see him execute his responsibilities like the consistent veteran he is.  Adding depth to this unit are Larry Foote and Jason Worlids.  Foote offers a short bridge to the future between a time after Farrior retires and Worlids is ready to step in but the immediate future for this unit is looking good, as usual.
DB – (Grade B)
The Steelers are surrendering a respectable 226 YPG so far this season and the secondary boasts 4 INT’s but there have been individual breakdowns that caused the unit to grade out at a “B”.  Having a healthy Troy Polamalu back on the field has been the key to the defensive success the Steelers have enjoyed thus far.  Along with Timmons, he is constantly around the ball and in the backfield.  His diving interceptions and leaping tackles produce results and motivate teammates to raise the level of their play.  Troy makes everyone around him better and keeping him healthy is critical for the Steelers’ hopes this year. 
Resigning Ryan Clark in the offseason is looking like another solid move by the Steelers’ front office as he continues to be the intimidator in the secondary for Pittsburgh, separating receivers from intended passes with thunderous hits and excellent timing.  If Ike Taylor could catch he’d probably be an All-Pro.  His coverage skills are still there and he does have one pick this year but he could easily have four if not for his inability to catch. 
Bryant McFadden has done a solid job so far and as he becomes more acclimated with the schemes and assignments he should continue to improve.  His bite on T. J. Houshmandzadeh’s “out and up” move late in the fourth quarter allowed the Ravens to take the game from the Steelers in week 4.  McFadden has got to play more disciplined than that for the Steelers to continue to have the success they have had with Polamalu’s free lancing so far this year.  William Gay is playing the position he was born to play: nickel back.  When blitzing or covering the third WR he has stepped up his play so far this year after a sub-par year in 2009 that led to B-Mac’s return.
Special Teams – (B)
The coverage units are dramatically improved and that was as important to this year’s team as establishing a solid running game.  Having given up zero TD’s via return while getting one of their own has also helped turn last year’s Achilles heel into a possible strength.  Antonio Brown has helped the kick return game but it may be time for changes on the punt return squad.  The only thing that squad leads the league in is fair catches with Randle El doing little besides fair catching punts and providing ball  security.  While it is important to have someone back there who won’t turn the ball over the team needs to get more out of the punt return unit than 5.8 YPR and inserting one of the rookie WR’s over the bye week may be something Pittsburgh wants to consider.  Daniel Sepulveda has done a masterful job while ranking in the top 5 in the league in punt average, net average and fair catches.  His return to form is an unrecognized contributor to the Steelers defense being among the league leaders in points against.
Jeff Reed has got to get it together.  After publicly complaining about not getting a new contract in the offseason he has done little to cause the Steelers to reconsider their decision.  He is currently only 1-5 from 40+ yards out and his misses forced overtime against Atlanta and cost his team a shot at overtime against Atlanta.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Toadies - cont.

Just listened to Backslider from Rubberneck and I take my last post about the Toadies' bassist back and I have reinstalled them at position #32 on my all-time list.  They fall right below Warrant but above Jackyl so they can once again be proud (while I can't now that you know how high Warrant and Jackyl are on my list.)

Week 4 - Channeling Nostradamus

By L. Smalls
After going 6-0 last week on the games I had vibes on and 5-5 on the one I forced, I have decided to cease and desist on listening to that voice in my head that tells me, “Come on pansy, the only way to be the best is to go 16-0 and you can’t go 16-0 unless you pick every game.”  He’s a bully and it’s time I learned to be comfortable with my own limitations so I’m only picking the games I’m 99% sure of.
Death, taxes and…
*Feel free to bet your homes on these locks.
Giants over Bears
If you think the Bears are for real at 3-0, then you haven’t been paying attention.  Jay Cutler should have finished the game against Green Bay with 5 interceptions instead of 1 and I can’t imagine that the Giants will shoot themselves in the foot as many times as Green Bay did last week to keep the Bears in the game.  My lasting memory from the Green Bay game is that fourth quarter pass that Cutler heaved downfield into double coverage which Collins intercepted only to have the play erased by a pass interference call.  Cutler thrusts his arms into the air like he did something right.  That is all you need to know about where his head is.  Peyton Manning would be scolding himself for making such a boneheaded decision in the first place instead of celebrating like he just made a great play. 
The Giants have to win this game.  It’s plain.  It’s simple.  It’s tic-tac-toe.   If Coughlin loses this one his entire team will join Antrel Rolle and Brandon Jacobs on the “bitch and complain” train in an effort to get him fired so the team can make room for The Jaw next year.  Throughout the Giants’ poor start they have been able to move the ball through the air (9th) and this trend should continue against the Bears soft secondary (28th).  Look for the G-Men to settle in and get the job done offensively and defensively as they expose Cutler and the Bears for the frauds that they are.
Chargers over Cardinals
The Chargers have got to be motivated.  Starting the season 1-2 while losing two very winnable road games has Phillip Rivers and company seething and the Cardinals are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The Chargers defense is playing extremely well and they should be able to contain the vaunted Derek Anderson-Stephen Williams connection even though they are running low on healthy LB’s.
The Cardinals aren’t doing much right, on offense or defense.  With Steve Breaston out for a month and Larry Fitzgerald not looking like himself the offense will have to  lean heavily on Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower to carry the load and hope the defense can keep them in games.  Beanie looked good last week against the Raiders but this week’s matchup should be a tad more challenging.  Derek Anderson needs to have one of his sporadic quality games for the Cardinals to even keep this one close.
Colts over Jaguars
After seeing what the Eagles did to the Jaguars last week I’m sure Peyton Manning and friends are getting excited about the possibilities of padding their individual stats against this awful franchise.  David Garrard is playing the QB position like Ray Charles and if you can’t pass the ball then you are not going to compete with the Colts in a track meet.  So can the defense keep this from being a shootout?  Umm….no. 
Jacksonville has earned the 29th ranking on defense by allowing big plays and not being able to get off the field on third down.  The 38% conversion rate they give up on defense wouldn’t be that bad except for the fact that the defense rarely sees third downs because opponents are gashing them on first and second and don’t see many thirds against this team.

These Dogs are growling…
I’d take the points, but you don’t need them.  On second thought, you might as well take them.  Overconfidence is rarely something people look back on in a positive light.
49ers (+7) at Falcons
Look for the 49ers to right the ship against an over hyped Falcons team coming off a big win.  Why does everyone think Matt Ryan is the man?  Because he looks good warming up?  He just doesn’t have the killer instinct necessary to win big games in this league.  You can tell by the way he smiles.  That’s right I just said that.
Meanwhile the hapless Ninners are coached by the least technically prepared staff in the league.  Mike Singletary is a motivator and a coordinator but he desperately needs an assistant head coach to help him with big boy decisions like when to take a time out or challenge a play.  Having said that, look for the Ninners to get off the schnide and win this one straight up as Mike Johnson takes over as Offensive Coordinator.   This team has too many offensive weapons to not produce so the change in leadership should help motivate.
Rams (+2 ½) vs. Seahawks
Taking the Rams at home with a gimpy S-Jax against an overachieving Seahawk squad is risky and this line may even be larger if Jackson indeed doesn’t play but the Rams and Sam Bradford are playing much better than anyone expected to start the year.  The Rams pick up of Mark Clayton was a key move that gave Bradford a weapon and a sense of comfort in the new offense having played with Clayton while both were at the University of Oklahoma.  The Rams were not blown out in either of their two losses and could easily be 2-1 and atop their division now.  This is shaping up to be a nice season in St. Louis due to the lack of any powerhouse within the division.
Raiders (+4 ½) vs. Texans
Did anyone else notice this is “inner division” week in the NFL with 10 of 14 games being divisional tilts?  This is one matchup where teams that only see one another every four years or so face off in a game that both teams need to win.  The Raiders snatched defeat from the mouth of victory last week by shanking a 25 yard FG while the Texans lost a big matchup against their big brothers from Dallas. 
The Raiders have been moving the ball on the ground this year and while the Texans are the 2nd ranked run defense in the NFL this ranking is skewed.  Opponents don’t try to run against Houston because they are usually behind by a couple of scores and are playing catch up or they’re the Redskins.  This will be a test for both units but I give the edge to the Raiders since they are at home.
The Texans have issues at wide receiver if Andre Johnson doesn’t play.  Nnamdi Asomugha will take Walters or Jones out of the game and with Owen Daniels gimpy that leaves Matt Shaub with limited options outside of Foster to move the ball.  The Raiders are currently ranked 24th overall against the run so this may be an option for Houston but if the Silver and Black are able to focus on stopping the run it may be a long day for Texan fans.
*If you make wagers based on my recommendations, you may want to seek professional help.  This article is for amusement only and if it is not amusing to you then I feel sad for you.  So sad.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Toadies

I just found out the bassist for The Toadies is a girl.  Why did I immediately drop them a few rungs on my all time favorites list?  It happened and I have to examine it for the reason why.  And I mean something besides my wife's explanation that I am simply a sexist pig.

What do old people think?

Do you ever wonder if old people question whether or not they are going to outlive the set of new tires they just bought for their car?  If you're in your 80's chances are you're not putting alot of miles on the old Studebaker so it would probably take years to accumulate the 60,000 miles necessary to wear out the thread of a new tire.  I bought new tires today and it cost me $600.  I can't wait to be old enough to buy my last set of new tires and then cantankerously wait for death.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What 3-0 Means to Me

29 Sep 2010
By Lenny Smalls
Does beginning the season 3-0 mean you are going to the playoffs?  Not if your roster has as many holes as Chicago and Kansas City does.  Neither team can convince me that they are anything better than the third best team in their division.  As a matter of fact, I’d be surprised if either team finished better than 8-8. 
After watching the Packers beat themselves…err…I mean, after watching the Bears beat the Packers on Monday Night Football the one thought that kept returning to me was how lucky Jay Cutler was.   He only recorded 1 interception in the game but he actually threw 5 including the last one that induced Favre flashbacks from 2005 that was wiped out by another Packer penalty.  They can’t run the ball (29th in the league) and if your hopes fall on Cutlers shoulders, then do you really have any hope?  Let’s ask Bronco fans.   So far they’ve beaten the Cowboys while Megatron beat the Lions and the Packers beat the Packers.  The Bears are pretenders who will probably finish 7-9 (if not 6-10.)
Kansas City is intriguing for a few reasons.  To start the season 3-0 and to beat San Diego (AFC West Champs) and San Francisco (expected NFC West Champs) is impressive.  They also play in a division that isn’t looking as formidable as it did on paper before the season kicked off.  The Chargers are beat up and not playing complete football the Broncos cannot run the ball and the Raiders are the Raiders (see last week’s kicking debacle for clarification.)  They are the antithesis of Chicago offensively because they can run the ball but if they fall behind early it will be interesting to see how Charlie Weis scores points in bunches with the famed (rhymes with lame) Cassell to Moeaki connection.  This team is not good enough to win its division and it doesn’t look good enough to finish above .500 this year either.  Sorry Bear fans but stand by for big changes in the Windy City in the off season.
The one 3-0 team that will make the playoffs is the Steelers.  Dominating opposing offenses with a ferocious defense complemented by an offense showcasing a steady running game all while playing much improved on special teams means Pittsburgh is for real.  The Steel Curtain is punishing opposing running backs and quarterbacks and things will only get better for the team after the bye when Big Ben returns.  This is a team that not only has what it takes to win the division, make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl, it may even be a threat to go undefeated.  It’s early in the season and making such a prediction is a ways off but if there is any team that could possibly do it this year, Pittsburgh’s our best bet.

Felix Hernandez is MLB’s version of Boise State

30 Sep 2010
by: Lenny Smalls
Felix Hernandez is the Boise State of MLB.  He may not win the Cy Young this year because of factors that are obviously outside of his control.  The same way Boise State (and TCU) was denied an opportunity to play for a National Championship last year due to factors outside of its control.  Why doesn’t everybody else look at the situation the same way I do and get this thing right?
The Cy Young is supposed to be an individual award and not an award given to a team for a group effort, correct?  They award the Cy Young to the best individual pitcher for a season and not the pitcher who plays on the best team, correct?  Not so fast.   If Hernandez does not win the Cy Young this year after posting an ERA of 2.27 and dominating opposing batters to a tune of 30 quality starts (6 IP, 3 or fewer ER’s) while Sabathia or Price win while not performing INDIVIDUALLY as well as Felix while enjoying almost twice as much offensive and bullpen support then it is obvious the award is not what it seems to be on the surface.
 On the surface the Cy Young is an award given to the league’s best pitcher for that year but behind that fa├žade it is just another team award given to the “have’s” and hard to award to the “have not’s”.   Pitchers from Seattle, Pittsburgh and Baltimore can forget about winning the award because their offensive teammates don’t live up to their end of the bargain when the ace is on the mound and quality starts are wasted in 1-0 losses.  If the Mariners would have scored more than 7 runs during his 12 losses then Hernandez would be a 20 game winner right now and I would be working on my “honey do” list instead of sitting at my laptop with a cup of coffee and an elevated heart rate. 
What makes things worse for AL pitchers on offensively challenged teams is that they don’t even get to pick up a stick and help out their own cause.  Felix dominates opposing batters and then takes a seat and watches as his team make Kyle Davies, KC (8-11, 5.31 ERA) and Kevin Millwood, Bal (4-16, 5.10 ERA) look like they should be considered for the Cy Young themselves!  And don’t get me started on Seattle’s bullpen which is probably more to blame for this conversation than Seattle’s anemic offense.  If you leave a game with a lead in the 8th inning in professional baseball you should be confident you will win the game most of the time but this was not the case this year in Seattle.
 It is obvious Felix Hernandez will have to go the same route Boise State has gone this year.  Boise State had to set themselves up for a chance at the national championship by first dominating their schedule and completing an entire season undefeated and using last year’s success to begin the season as a top 5 team this year.  The fact that they are in position to play for the national championship is largely based on last year’s performance because they otherwise would have again started the season ranked outside the top 10 and found it impossible to climb high enough to get into the championship game even if they did win all their games again.  If Felix doesn’t win at least he has set himself up to win next year with another dominating season, it’s just a shame that he has to do it twice while Yankees and Rays players don’t face the same challenges.