Sunday, November 29, 2009

#135: Plethora of Scapegoats

---Fans Misplacing Much Blame---

Hell hath no fury like Steeler fans who hate losing.

Following a 20-17 overtime loss to the division rival Baltimore Ravens Sunday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost three games in a row for the first time under head coach Mike Tomlin (and for the first time since Oct. 22 through Nov. 5, 2006).

The knee-jerk reaction from the Steeler faithful (not "Steeler Nation", since that was ripped off from Oakland) is that all the blame falls squarely on the coaching.

Some. Not all.

Most of it has to do with personnel, execution and experience.

No doubt, even some of the most stalwart fans though to themselves prior to kickoff, "The Steelers are gonna get killed." In the end, though, the Black and Gold hung with 'em.

And this was despite having:

- A second-year quarterback (but still basically a rookie).

- A shaky (and sometimes patchwork) offensive line.

- No versatile All-World strong safety to anchor "hit first, tackle later" secondary.

- Question mark special teams.

No. This is not the same Steeler team that swept three very close games from Baltimore last season.

Still it doesn't seem to matter how the Steelers would have lost this game. The pitchforks and torches from the angry mob were going to descend on Tomlin's staff. To paraphrase Glenn Yarbrough, "Baby, the blame must fall."

Tomlin probably prefers it that way, but that still doesn't mean it's right.


Rewind two weeks. Cincinnati at Heinz Field.

Troy Polamalu is hurt (again) in the first half, Ben Roethlisberger has his one truly bad game, and the special teams gives up a kickoff return for a touchdown.

To the first: that always has an impact, even if the defense continues to play well (which it did).

To the second: the best quarterback in pro football is allowed to have a bad game (recall last year's game against Indianapolis). It's just unfortunate that it came against a division rival at home, and not against an out-of-conference road opponent.

To the third: Poor coaching. No playcalls involving a check down to a running back. All pass plays seemed to be home run balls, even when there was time left on the clock, against a very young and formidable tandem of cornerbacks.


Fast forward to the Kansas City upset.

Polamalu doesn't play. Special teams gives up another TD. Roethlisberger throws two picks. And there's a particularly bad play call in overtime.

To the first: The defense still holds the Kansas City offense to just above it's season average in total yards (below average if you subtract the big overtime play that set up the game-winning field goal).

To the second: the special teams limit the KC's kick return team to an average of 20 yards per return the rest of the way. That's making adjustments (hence, at least decent coaching), keeping in mind that the special teams had a new look entering the game.

Third: the INTs were the results of a tipped/dropped ball and a disrupted throwing arm.

Finally: Why are the Steelers running a sweep on third and two? If they are going to run in that situation, it has to be north-and-south.


Now, to the recent past.

No Troy. No Ben. A rookie at left guard starting against a great-to-elite front seven (minus Terrell Suggs). And some shaky play calling, once again.

To the first: The secondary gave up more big plays in a single game than many fans can remember, despite the front seven getting consistent pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

What hurt most were the yards after contact on a good number of those plays. Does Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau instruct his defensive backs to act like missiles instead of wrapping up ball carriers? And even if he doesn't instruct his players to do that, he shares the blame for not getting them to change that approach.

To the second: Dennis Dixon's lack of experience showed at the end when he failed to recognize a shift in coverage and threw a hot-route pass right into the hands of rookie defensive end Paul Kruger. In general, Dixon didn't seem to be able to make the adjustments in his passing game to counter the adjustments that the Ravens had made at halftime, leading to a statistical drop-off.

Still, the coaching staff made sure Dixon was as prepared as he could be, and he did run a diversified offense with stretch plays, draws, screens, keepers and down-field passing. His ability to execute is something that, for better or for worse, can really only come with in-game reps.

It's unrealistic to think that a second-year player who has had no real playing time, especially at the quarterback position, to play at a level much higher than a rookie. Next time he sees action, he needs to elevate the ball a little bit when he throws short-to-medium range passes.

To the third: Cris Collinsworth on NBC's televised broadcast was raining unfair criticism down on rookie Ramon Foster at left guard.

Consider that Foster's experience in college was primarily at tackle. Right tackle.

Yet, he was sometimes active when the formation would call for pulling the guard to the other side of the line at the snap. Tackles don't typically do that. Occasionally, the play would work fine. Other times, not. No different than when Chris Kemoeatu is healthy and playing.

Still, he must have done something right, because against that Ravens unit, the line did not give up a single sack. And his first and only real action as a pro came during the aforementioned Chiefs game.

And finally: If fans want to legitimately howl at the coaching staff this week, they should do so for the right reasons.

Why didn't the Steelers even try to get themselves into field goal range before the end of the first half? There's conservative (run plays, screens, and five-yard out patterns), and then there's what the Steelers did (run, run, run, run). Dixon had already shown that he was capable of throwing short passes and Baltimore had not (yet) had time to adjust to him.

During Pittsburgh's first possession in overtime, I thought the best play call of the night was followed immediately by the worst.

On second down and six from their own 37, they run a go-route to rookie receiver Mike Wallace, but Dixon fires out of bounds. After showing a tendency to run again after a fair gain (four yards on first down), it was an optimal time to draw up a medium-to-deep pass play.

However, they tried to go long again on third down, instead of a six-yard out pattern to the sideline, the likes of which a Heath Miller or a Hines Ward could run in their sleep.

During their second possession, they went run-run-pass (no punt, because the pass was intercepted by Kruger). It was the pattern of the 1980s that kept the Steelers of that era from being anything more than a pedestrian offense.

The special teams coverage unit, while it didn't give up a return touchdown this week, still seemed to get in its own way all night. They were helped out by some away-from-the-play penalties, but still no touchdown allowed. The jury's still out on whether inserting starters like James Harrison is the answer, or if it's the general coverage scheme they're trying to run.

And, for those that believe in karma, the bounces just aren't going Pittsburgh's way this season. Three overtime losses (Chicago, Kansas City, Baltimore), one loss in the final seconds (at Cincinnati), and one game wasn't decided until after the two-minute warning (vs. Cincinnati).

Last year, the Steelers had an overtime win against the Ravens, and another win in Baltimore that came by the nose of a football. There was a gutsy, come-from-behind win in Jacksonville. Don't forget the fortuitous interception by DeShea Townsend against Dallas that gave the Steelers a win against the Cowboys, and a field goal in the waning seconds against San Diego in a (fixed) contest that saw the Steelers out-penalize the Chargers 13-2 (that second penalty came on the final, razzle-dazzle play of the game).

How much credit did the coaching staff get in all of those close-call wins?

While it may be cathartic to level criticism at one source for this losing streak, it certainly isn't fair or accurate.

Fans should get into the spirit of giving and share their ire with all responsible parties.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

#134: Penn State Book Review

---Complete Illustrated History---

This is my first (and probably last) entry with specific regard to the Penn State Nittany Lions.

As a youngster, one of my favorite collegiate football teams was the Jimmy Johnson-led Miami Hurricanes. Joe Paterno's Lions defeated that team in January of 1987 in the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship. That game, in addition to my already-present favoritism for the Pitt Panthers, turned me against the PSU program for good and all.

Or so I thought.

Nearly 23 years later, I caught my first whiff of Blue and White fever courtesy of a complimentary copy of "Penn State Football: The Complete Illustrated History" from MVP Books.

I am not a fast reader. I am easily distracted and, when I am able to focus, I comb over each word, trying to process all the details. Never mind that prior to cracking the cover, my only interest in Penn State football was whether the Ohio State Buckeyes beat 'em.

Yet, in the course of two evenings (while working board op duty at WMBS radio), I was able to complete the book.

In so doing, I acquired a greater knowledge of the program and a much deeper appreciation for Joe Paterno.

Next year will mark JoePa's 60th year on the PSU coaching staff (he spent the the first 16 as an assistant to Rip Engle). In all that time, he has continued to instill in his players the old-fashioned values of arriving early for meetings, showing respect, maintaining a neat appearance, and excelling in both academics and athletics.

When you look at some other coaches and programs across the collegiate spectrum, you realize how rare these qualities are.

Granted, the book is designed to be a "rah-rah" display, skimming over the rough patches in the program's 122-year history in order to focus on the teams that were legitimate contenders for national recognition and national championships. Still, it's written and constructed in a fashion where the reader is sufficiently aware of the difficult years so that there is a distinct contrast when reading about the team's years of achievement.

"Penn State Football" takes the reader in chronological order from the program's first game (a 9-0 victory over Bucknell) through its 38-24 loss to USC in the January 2009 Rose Bowl. Recruiting the players of tomorrow, the challenges of playing in an independent league, breaking the color barrier, "Linebacker U", JoePa's sideline injury... The book covers it all.

Throughout are wonderfully-selected photographs, many pulled from the Penn State University Archives, that (true to the book's full title) illustrate how the game grew in State College, Pennsylvania.

It also introduces the reader to (or reacquaints the reader with) some of the personalities that defined the teams of that era, like Joe Bedenk, a lineman from the early 1920s who helped lead the Nittany Lions to their first Rose Bowl, then later joined the coaching staff; Wally Triplett, a running back in the late 1940s who became the first African-American draft pick to play in the National Football League; and Jim Garrity, Joe Paterno's first recruit, and whose son, Gregg, made perhaps the most important catch in the school's history.

The book also makes mention of some of the school's black marks - a dirty style of play that made the Ohio State Buckeyes leave the field following a brawl with 9 minutes to play during a 1912 contest; an infamous snowball fight in the stands, during which PSU fans even booed Paterno when he admonished them for their shenanigans; and the increasing difficulty Paterno has had in the last few years of trying to keep his players out of legal trouble...and then suffering the fallout when they didn't.

"Penn State Football: The Complete Illustrated History" is packed with statistical information (particularly in its appendix), historical photographs, and even a few emotional punches (a summary of Heisman Trophy-winner John Cappelletti's acceptance - and dedication - speech, for one).

If I - pretty much a life-long anti-Penn Stater - can get engrossed in this work, I can only imagine what feelings it will evoke in those who bleed Blue and White.

("Penn State Football: The Complete Illustrated History" is available in bookstores and online booksellers or from