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January 21, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: The automatic extra point? It certainly wasn’t for ’81 Steelers

Steelers kicker missed eight extra points in 1981

Steelers kicker missed eight extra points in 1981

By Alan Robinson

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s idea to remove the extra point from the game no doubt would have been opposed by the Steelers’ divisional opponents in 1981.

That season, Steelers kicker David Trout — the former Pitt kicker — missed EIGHT extra points.

You read that correctly. Eight extra points.

Trout went 38 of 46 that season, an 82.6 percent success rate that was barely higher than his 70.6 percent rate on field goals (12 of 17). What’s interesting is he was 3-for-3 on field goals that were extra point-length.

Not surprisingly, that was Trout’s one and only full season with the Steelers. He returned to their replacement team at age 30 in 1987 and went 10-of-10 on extra points, but missed both of his field goal attempts, neither of which was longer than 39 yards.

Since 1938, when the league began accurately tracking conversions, Trout’s eight misses are tied for the most in a season. Steve Little was 24 of 32 for St. Louis in 1979 — his 75 percent conversion rate is the lowest of the NFL’s modern era — and Tom Dempsey of the 1976 Rams was 36 of 44 (81.8 percent). Dempsey, of course, held the record for the longest field goal, of 63 yards, for decades.

No NFL kicker has missed more than five extra points in a season since Trout’s season, according to multiple NFL statistical databases; Max Zendejas of the 1986 Redskins (23 of 28, 82.1 percent) and Pat Leahy of the 1982 Jets (26 of 31, 83.9 percent) both missed five.

Trout wasn’t the only Steelers kicker to struggle with the PAT at times; Mike Clark was 19 of 24 (79.2 percent) for the 1965 Steelers and Gary Kerkorian of the 1952 Steelers missed six of 41 attempts (85.4 percent). And Kris Brown missed three of 37 attempts in 2001, the first season of play on Heinz Field’s kicker-unfriendly turf.

Excluding the 1987 season, when teams used replacement kickers for part of the season, there have been 673 extra points missed since 1982, the year after Trout’s repeated misses.

Kickers have missed 448 extra points since 1988, but only 49 — an average of fewer than 10 per season — over the past five seasons. Kickers are 6,059 of 6,108 on extra points since 2009.

It wouldn’t get much worse than this for the Steelers — other than missing the playoffs because of an officiating error in a city nearly 3,000 miles away.

The Steelers being forced to appear on HBO’s all-revealing “Hard Knocks” series during training camp.

The Steelers are among the most closed-door teams in the league, and they’re not interested in revealing any state secrets. But HBO’s access is blanketing, and it would certainly show some inner workings the Steelers aren’t eager at all to reveal.

According to guidelines adopted last year by the NFL, a team is exempt from
appearing only if it has been on Hard Knocks in the last 10 years; has a new head coach or has made the playoffs in either of the preceding two seasons.

The Steelers are one of seven teams that don’t meet any of the exemptions. The others are the Bills, Jaguars, Raiders, Giants, Buccaneers and Rams. Given the Steelers’ national following and coast-to-coast popularity, they would likely be a prime candidate in HBO’s eyes. The Giants would be another.

The five teams that have been on Hard Knocks since 2007 are the Chiefs, Cowboys, Bengals (twice), Jets and Dolphins. The Bengals were on only last summer, so that might be the Steelers’ one out — HBO doesn’t want a second AFC North team in as many seasons.

Another NFL team also could volunteer to be on the show.

The Cowboys and Bengals have both been on twice. The Ravens appeared on the first Hard Knocks in 2001.

Safety Troy Polamalu, who pulled out of the Pro Bowl because of injury, and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons were the only Steelers players to be on the field for all 1,093 snaps on defense this season.

January 17, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: How “dire” is the Steelers’ cap situation?

Omar Khan

Steelers cap experts Omar Khan and (unless he takes a GM's job) and Samir Suleiman already have begun a challenging offseason.

Steelers cap experts Omar Khan and (unless he takes a GM’s job) and Samir Suleiman already have begun a challenging offseason.

By Alan Robinson

During team president Art Rooney II’s two post-season conversations to date, he made it obvious the Steelers have considerable work to do personnel-wise during the offseason.

Nothing will be more important than managing the salary cap.

Free agency begins March 11, and the Steelers, as usual, aren’t expected to be players for any difference-making free agents — the kind that command the type of salary the Steelers can’t afford. (See Mike Wallace, $60 million, or Keenan Lewis, $26 million.)

This week, Rooney said the Steelers will attempt to re-sign some of their 21 unrestricted free agents — the third-most in the league. The only teams with more are the Giants and Bears with 23 each.

The Browns, on the other hand, have a league-low five free agents– or as many All-Pro players as they have.

Five Steelers free agents are starters — Jason Worilds, Ryan Clark, Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel and Emmanuel Sanders — and, effectively, so is a sixth, Jerricho Cotchery, since he plays more than the fullback does in Todd Haley’s offense.

Cotchery and Worilds appear to be the most likely to return. Sanders and Clark are the most likely to leave. Hood, one of the lowest-rated defensive linemen in the NFL, also isn’t expected back. Neither is Keisel, who will be 36 next season — unless the Steelers are convinced they simply don’t have enough defensive line depth and he is willing to take a huge hometown discount.

Other free agents are Plaxico Burress, Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling, David Johnson, Michael Palmer, Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, Guy Whimper, Al Woods, Stevenson Sylvester, Jamaal Westerman, Will Allen, Mat McBriar and Greg Warren.

The Steelers have already signed a punter (Brad Wing) who could supplant McBriar. They also signed a long snapper (Bryce Davis), but Warren is consistently one of the best long snappers in the league and he provides a lot of comfort to both kicker Shaun Suisham and the punter. But Warren also makes ($840,000 last season) about what the kicker and punter do for some franchises.

The Steelers liked how Velasco filled in for the injured Maurkice Pouncey, and they would like to bring him back as a swingman-type backup. They also will try to re-sign Allen.

“There are probably a couple of guys we need to look at,” Rooney said. “Jason Worilds is certainly somebody who came on and showed what he can do, particularly over the second half of the season. The truth of the matter is there is a lot of work that needs to be done between now and making some of those final decisions.

“The new league year doesn’t start until March 11. Between now and then. we will be trying to make those decisions and having conversations with some of the players’ agents, seeing what we can work out. There’s no doubt we have a number of free agents ad we are going to want to keep.”

But, again, the key is how well the Steelers (or poorly) manage the cap.

Currently, they’re about $11 million over, but they’ll quickly whack $6,250,000 off that by cutting tackle Levi Brown, who was added after the Mike Adams fiasco in London but never got into a game. And, at least with the Steelers, he never will.

But, unless they make some dramatic moves — and, according to Rooney, cutting Troy Polamalu doesn’t appear to be one of them — they will have little flexibility to do much maneuvering at all.

The four teams that currently have the least amount of cap room are the Cowboys ($21,572,985 over), the Steelers ($11,727,398 over), Saints ($9,395,654 over) and the Lions ($4,912,206 over), according to Overthecap.com’s estimates.

The teams with the most cap room, and thus the flexibility to pursue players who can make an immediate impact, are the Raiders — who are a remarkable $64,705,390 UNDER the cap — the Jaguars ($53,023,075), Browns ($50,122,350) and Dolphins ($35,203,228).

So, as the moment, the Browns have nearly $62 million MORE cap space than the Steelers, or nearly half the 2013 cap ceiling of $123 million. The Bengals, who consistently go into free agency with considerable space, are $25,486,456 below the cap — a difference of about $37 million compared to the Steelers.

The Steelers are so cap-challenged each year, they’re constantly reworking contracts with their higher-paid players, but that only pushes those same cap issues ahead a year or two. For example, linebacker LaMarr Woodley’s restructurings in 2012 and 2013 created more than $14 million worth of dead money that counts against the Steelers’ cap, even if they cut him. Only two years ago, Woodley’s dead money was only about $4 million.

For comparison’s sake, other teams with plenty of cap room are the Redskins ($28,637,929), Packers ($28,158, 375), Bills ($27,459,097), Vikings ($24,293,568), Eagles ($21,614,691) and Jets ($21,657,558), according to Overthecap.com.

The Ravens, who did considerable roster shuffling after winning the Super Bowl last season, are $11,858,455 under the cap.

However, Rooney doesn’t think the Steelers’ cap situation is any more dire than in the recent past.

“It depends on how you define managing the cap,” he said. “To me, our goal is to put a competitive team on the field and I think, for the most part, we’ve managed to do that.”

January 14, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Steelers can add fifth year onto Heyward’s contract — but it will cost them

Cam Heyward might let out a cheer if the Steelers pick up this option.

Cam Heyward might let out a cheer if the Steelers pick up this option.

By Alan Robinson

Defensive end Cam Heyward experienced exactly the kind of season the Steelers envisioned him playing when they made him a first-round draft pick in 2011.

Now, the question is whether Heyward’s breakthrough season will convince them to pick up an option on his contract that would give him another season in Pittsburgh without going through negotiations.

The rookie wage scale adopted in 2011 mandated that all draft picks be signed to four-year contracts. But, for all first-round picks, a fifth year can be added by the team.

Heyward, the former Ohio State star, was the 31st pick on the first round in 2011.

The Steelers have until May 3 to pick up the option — but it’s not likely they would do so until that date because, once the option is exercised, a player’s fifth-year salary becomes guaranteed even if he is injured during offseason workouts.

For players taken in the top 10, the amount owed in the fifth season must be equal to the transition player tender for his position. Heyward falls into the group of picks No. 11-32, so the Steelers must pay him the average of the top 25 players at his position, with the top three salaries excluded, or Nos. 4-25.

The Steelers already have Heyward under contract for 2014, and exercising the option would commit him to playing for them in 2015, as well. However, it would come at a cost; the average salary for a Top 25 defensive end in 2013 was approximately $8.5 million.

That’s far above the Steelers’ pay scale for a defensive end; Brett Keisel, for example, made $3.9 million in 2013. Heyward’s contract calls for him to make $1.3 million in 2014, with the pro-rated share of his signing bonus driving his cap value up to $2.13 million.

The Steelers could choose to ignore the fifth-year option and attempt to lock up Heyward to a new contract before the 2014 season begins. But premium defensive ends command big salaries and, if the Steelers don’t work out a new contract or pick up the option, they risk losing Heyward to a team willing to pay the going rate for a disruptive defensive end.

They took the same risk a year ago with cornerback Keenan Lewis, and ended up being an impact player after signing with his hometown Saints for $26 million. With Lewis gone, the Steelers’ cornerbacks struggled for much of the season.

Heyward, a part-time player until this season, played 845 of a possible 1,093 snaps and had five sacks, seven quarterback hurries, a team-high 34 quarterback hits and five batted passes, plus 59 tackles.

Pro Football Focus graded him at 11.4, the second-highest ranking on the Steelers defense to Troy Polamalu’s 12.2 Heyward and outside linebacker Jason Worilds were the only players on the Steelers’ defense to grade above average as both a pass rusher and a run defender. Heyward ranked 18th overall among all NFL 3-4 defensive ends.

Heyward graded out at 6.8 in 2012, but he played only 267 snaps, or only about one-quarter of all the snaps played by the Steelers defense.

January 9, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: No Ben Contract Could Severely Restrict Steelers

If might be the Steelers who are scrambling, not Ben Roethlisberger, if they don't give their franchise QB a new contract.

If might be the Steelers who are scrambling, not Ben Roethlisberger, if they don’t give their franchise QB a new contract.

By Alan Robinson

It’s not the salary, it’s the salary cap.

That’s the bottom line and, the way the NFL operates now, it will be the bottom line for the foreseeable future.

Steelers president Art Rooney II, giving the first extensive interview of the offseason by a team official, said the team might wait until at the end of next season to give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a new contract. He said they might even wait until his current deal concludes at the end of the 2015 season.

The last time Roethlisberger was in such a situation, with two years left on his contract in 2008, the Steelers gave him an eight-year, $102 million contract. Normally, teams often redo such contracts at about this time because such deals are almost always back-end loaded.

Here’s what Rooney said about Roethlisberger’s contract when I asked him about it:

“Let’s put it this way: We’re still at the beginning stages of evaluating where we want to go with our cap and preparing for next season. We have a lot of decisions to make. So, we’ll see. The only thing I would say about Ben and his situation is I certainly expect that at some point we will do a contract, whether it’s this season, or after next season or after the season after that, but I think Ben will be playing here beyond the current contract.”

As for typically giving the starting quarterback a new contract with two years remaining, he said. “I would say that’s not set in stone. We’ve done it in the past on a couple of occasions. But it’s not necessarily something that’s let’s say automatic. As I said before, I believe we’ll get something done when it’s appropriate for both sides. I think Ben knows it’s our intention to have him here beyond this current contract whenever we get it done.”

Much is being made about the affordability of Roethlisberger’s contract, at least salary wise — $12.1 million in 2014 and $11.6 million in 2015. If that was all the money the Steelers were absorbing in salary cap charges, it would make all the sense in the world to let his current contract run out before re-signing him — though, of course, they would risk losing him to a mega-offer if he became an unrestricted free agent, even at age 34.

One option is to let him play out his current contract, then make him their franchise player in 2016 — but that would cost an estimated $22 million not just in salary cap hit, but in pure salary.

But, again, it’s not the salary that’s the important number here. It’s the salary cap hit.

Roethlisberger has reworked his contract so many times to help the Steelers get under the cap, his salary cap hit will climb to $18,895,000 in 2014 and $18,395,000 in 2015. These are among the highest figures in the league for any player, and the Steelers cannot get around these numbers unless they somehow re-do his contract one more time.

As of right now, Roethlisberger’s salary cap hit is set to be the FIFTH highest in the NFL next season, behind only Jay Cutler, Bears ($22.5 million); Ndamukong Suh, Lions ($22,412,500); Tony Romo, Cowboys ($21,773,000); and Eli Manning, Giants ($20.45 million).

By the way, note that NONE Of those five players were on teams that made the playoffs this season (neither did No. 6 Mario Williams of the Bills, $18.8 million).

Even if the salary cap climbs as high as $130 million next season, which it probably won’t, Roethlisberger’s cap hit would be nearly 15 percent of the Steelers’ cap. This is a huge amount for a team that was so cap-strapped at the middle of this season, it reworked Ike Taylor’s contract just to create a minimal amount of cap room.

Having a single player chew up so much cap space creates problems in that teams often can’t afford to pick up the relatively affordable players who can be difference-makers (Wes Welker to the Broncos for $12 million over two years) or merely effective players at their positions. It can mean the difference between signing and playing a player who grades out in the upper half of those at his position (a linebacker who makes $3.5 million over two years, for example) or someone who’s been pulled off the street (as the Steelers did this season with linebacker Kion Wilson, who ended up starting at the beginning of the season).

Big, big salary cap hits impact the roster from top to bottom.

For example, even if the Steelers decide internally they’d like to cut oft-injured linebacker LaMarr Woodley, the $14 million cap hit they’d absorb from the dead money he’s owed, on top of Roethlisberger’s mega-sized cap hit, would severely limit their ability to sign free agents for the next two seasons.

Here’s a recent conversation I had with NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, a Pittsburgh native and former Duke lineman:

“That kills every team, if they’ve got dead money, the cap is against them — on a very flat cap (a cap that doesn’t go up much from season to season). When you pay your quarterback a lot of money like they pay Big Ben, and you look around the league right now, every team that’s paying a quarterback $20 million or thereabouts, no of their defenses are top 10 defenses.

“You just have a lot less money to work with. You almost have to bring a player back you’re paying because you can’t afford that money to go against you.”

Drew Brees is the only exception this season, as the Saints’ defense ranked No. 6 this season.

And while the biggest salaries are supposed to go to the top players on the best teams, see if you can spot a trend on this season’s salary cap hit list:

1-Eli Manning, Giants, $20,850,000
2-Matthew Stafford, Lions $17,820,000
3-Peyton Manning, Broncos $17,500,000
4-Drew Brees, Saints, $17,400,000
5-Jared Allen, Vikings $17,063,956
6-Darrelle Revis, Buccaneers $16,000,000
7-Tamba Hall, Chiefs $15,500,000
8-Cortland Finnegan, Rams $15,000,000
9-Julius Peppers, Bears $14,383,000
10-Adrian Peterson, Vikings $13,900,000
(All salaries are from spotrac.com)

Only three players on the list (Peyton Manning, Brees, Hali) made the playoffs this season; seven of the top 10 are sitting out the postseason.

By the way, Roethlisberger was No. 13 this season at $13,595,000, but that number jumps by more than FIVE million dollars next season.

And consider this: If the Steelers decide not to re-work Roethlisberger’s contract AND to cut Woodley before June 1 (after that date, they can spread the cap charge over two seasons), they will have accounted for $33 million worth of salary cap space, or 27 percent of last season’s cap of $123 million. For TWO players, one of whom won’t even be playing for them.

And if they wait until June 1 to jettison Woodley, his cap charge of $13,590,000 for 2014 counts against them until that date, or during the very period they would be out on the market possibly seeking his replacement.

Again, it’s not the salary, it’s the salary cap charge that can be a season-wrecker. And that’s what the Steelers will be risking if they don’t work out a new contract with Roethlisberger before next season.

January 4, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Upon more review, here’s how Steelers’ season went by the numbers

The Todd Haley/Ben Roethlisberger offense ranked higher analytically than it did in the NFL ratings.

The Todd Haley/Ben Roethlisberger offense ranked higher analytically than it did in the NFL ratings.

By Alan Robinson

Let’s roll the video tape again.

Earlier this week, we broke down how Pro Football Focus — a player-performance website subscribed to by multiple NFL teams and player agents — ranked each Steelers player for the 2013 season.

Now, we’re turning to Football Outsiders, which attempts to quantify football performance with analytics similar to those so popular in baseball. For example, one of its primary ranking measures is DYAR. or defense-adjusted value above replacement –a stat similar to WAR (wins above replacement) in baseball.

Just as Pro Football Focus does, Football Outsiders attempts to replace speculation and subjective opinions with non-biased statistical quantification.

Analytics are becoming increasingly popular in the NFL; former Browns coach Rob Chudzinski, it was reported, was fired in part because he didn’t embrace analytical research as enthusiastically as chief executive officer Joe Banner and his staff do.

So let’s see how the Steelers were ranked by Football Outsiders. One statistic to look for — how the Steelers’ schedule ranked:

DEFENSE
Analytically, the Steelers don’t rank nearly as high as they do in the NFL’s standard yards-per-game allowed stats. Last year, the Steelers were ranked No. 1 overall in the league stats but only No. 13 by Football Outsiders.

This season, the Steelers are No. 13 in the league stats and No. 20 in the Football Outsiders rankings. They have a 4.0 defense-adjusted value over rating; Seattle is No. 1 at minus-25.8 and Arizona is No. 2 at minus-16.4. (Minus numbers are better defensively.) Buffalo is a surprising No. 4; the Bengals are No. 5, the Ravens are No. 7 and the Browns are No. 24, or much lower than their league-ranking No. 9.

In weighted defense, which adjusts the rankings so that earlier games in the season become less important, the Steelers are No. 20.

The Steelers ranked No. 19 in pass defense, No. 21 in rush defense and No. 32 and last in schedule, which represents the average offensive DVOA of its opponents; the Giants were No. 1 and Redskins No. 2. (The Giants played seven playoff teams: the Eagles (twice), Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, Panthers, Packers and Seahawks. The Steelers played only three: the Bengals (twice), Patriots and Packers.)

OFFENSE
While Dick LeBeau’s defense ranks lower in Football Outsiders’ analytics than it does in the league stats, Todd Haley’s offense ranks higher — No. 12 overall, up from No. 20 in the league rankings.

The Steelers’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) is 15th at 0.9 percent (Seattle leads at 40.1), up from 18th a year ago.

Football Outsiders details how Haley adjusted the offense coming out of the bye week, with the Steelers 0-4 and in danger of seeing their season collapse. With Le’Veon Bell now in the lineup after missing the first three games, the offensive focus shifted from Ben Roethlisberger, operating with limited protection, trying to force the ball downfield to receivers to running the ball more consistently and getting the ball out quickly to wide receivers. The play of both right guard David DeCastro and newly installed left tackle Kelvin Beachum picked up appreciably once the offensive focus shifted.

The quick screens particularly benefitted Jerricho Cotchery, who made 10 TD catches after not having any in 2012. And Roethlisberger got hit much less, which allowed him to extend plays, something he couldn’t do early in the season, when was sacked five times in four different games.

SPECIAL TEAMS
An area of interest since Danny Smith was in his first year on the job as special teams coach, the third in two seasons following Al Everest and Amos Jones.

The Steelers ranked 16th in special teams efficiency, up one spot from last season, when Everest was fired during training camp and replaced by Jones, who left after the season ended to take the same job with the Cardinals. Football Outsiders’ rankings are based on an estimate of how many points, compared to the league average, each team receives from field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns.

The Steelers ranked slightly above average in field goals at plus 2.5, compared to New England’s league-leading 11.5 — the Ravens and Justin Tucker were at 11.4 — and Minnesota’s league-low minus-15.4.

Not surprisingly, the Steelers/Suisham were a minus-1.5 in kickoffs (St. Louis was a plus 12.6). They were a plus 1.2 in kickoff returns (Minnesota was a plus 22.6) and a strong plus 11.8 in punt returns, thanks to Pro Bowl returner Antonio Brown (only Kansas City and Baltimore were better). Their worst special teams ranking, not unexpectedly was punting at minus-11.1; only the Redskins (minus-33), Giants, Raiders and Bills were worse.

QUARTERBACK
Ben Roethlisberger ranks 11th in DYAR, or defense-adjusted yards above replacement. DYAR is adjusted for situation and opponent; YAR (yards above replacement) is not, but Roethlisberger also ranks 11th in those numbers. He is 12th in defense-adjusted value over average, which represents how well he performs on a play-by-play basis.

His 54.3 QBR, a metric created by ESPN, is No. 19 (The benched Jake McCown of Chicago is No. 1, with Peyton Manning No. 2 and Philip Rivers No. 3.)

RUNNING BACK
Le’Veon Bell is 28th in DYAR (again, defense-adjusted yards above replacement). His success rate on runs of 47 percent ranked 23rd; that number represents a player’s consistency, measured by successful running plays divided by total running plays. The success rate doesn’t vary greatly; NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy was at 52 percent. The leader was Danny Woodhead (60 percent) of San Diego; last was Bobby Rainey (31 percent) of Cleveland and Tampa Bay.

WIDE RECEIVER
Antonio Brown ranked No. 5 in DYAR , just ahead of Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. Demaryius Thomas of Denver was No. 1. Brown led the league in effective yards, which translates DVOA into a yards per attempt figure. His catch rate of 66 percent was the same as Anquan Boldin of San Francisco and just below the 67 percent of Jordy Nelson of Green Bay.

TIGHT END
Heath Miller, whose performance was adversely affected much of the season by his recovery from a serious knee injury, ranked 29th in DYAR and 35th in defense-adjusted value over average. DYAR means a tight end with more total value; DVOA means a tight end with more value per play. His catch rate of 74 percent was the league’s third best.

OFFENSIVE LINE
With all of their o-line injuries, the Steelers ranked 22nd overall, 21st in power (the percentage of runs on third or fourth down of 2 yards or fewer), 21st in stuffed yards (the percentage of runs in which a running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage), and 29th in both second level blocking (yards gained between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and open field yards (yards gained more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage).

DEFENSIVE LINE
The Steelers were 23rd overall, 16th in power success (stopping runs on third and fourth down of 2 yards or fewer), a very-low 30th in stuffed yards (turning back a running back at or behind the line of scrimmage) but No. 4 in second level yards (gained between 5 and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage).

One number Football Outsiders: How a team is affected by bad officiating calls, not only in its games but its opponents games.

January 2, 2014
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Steelers’ final grades for 2013 are in …

Not surprisingly, Antonio Brown was the Steelers' highest-graded player foe 2013.

Not surprisingly, Antonio Brown was the Steelers’ highest-graded player foe 2013.

By Alan Robinson

So how did they rank?

Passing yards, rushing yards, sacks and interceptions provide some insight into an NFL player’s performance. But such numbers certainly aren’t the only measure of how well or how poorly a player performs during a 16-game, four-month season.

Pro Football Focus grades every player on every play during a season, thus providing an objective analysis of every NFL player compared to the others at his position. The grades are subscribed to by multiple NFL teams and player agents.

While Pro Football Focus’ grades might not mirror a team’s own grades (those commonly are made by the position coaches), they do provide a non-biased view into a player’s season.

Now that their season is complete, here’s how the Steelers graded out:

OFFENSE
Not surprisingly, record-breaking wide receiver Antonio Brown was the highest-graded player on offense with a 23.2 rating. (PFF’s grading system is too complicated to explain in a few sentences, but the higher the rating, the better.) He also graded out third among all NFL wide receivers, trailing only Brandon Marshall of the Bears and Calvin Johnson of the Lions. (One surprising number: While Brown went out as a receiver on 631 of the 968 snaps he played, he was used as a run blocker on 330 plays.)

Ben Roethlisberger’s 12.1 rating was the second highest among the Steelers and was 10th among all NFL quarterbacks. He was the only player who was on the field for every one of the 1,067 offensive snaps; Brown was second with 968 snaps and right tackle Marcus Gilbert was third with 965 snaps.

Gilbert allowed the most sacks (11) and quarterback hurries (30) of the offensive linemen, left tackle Kelvin Beachum was second with seven sacks allowed.

Left guard Ramon Foster (13.2) and right guard David DeCastro (11.8) were the highest-rated offensive linemen. DeCastro was much higher as a run blocker (8.1) than he was as a pass blocker (minus-0.1), yet still allowed only two sacks, the same as Foster. Foster graded out at 9.9 as a run blocker.

Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (10 TD catches) also graded out well at 10.3. Emmanuel Sanders, the other starting wide receiver, had a 1.5 grade.

The lowest-rated players on offense were left tackle Mike Adams (minus-7.3 rating, 4 sacks allowed plus 24 QB hurries, the second most of any lineman although he played only 485 snaps); tight end Heath Miller (minus-6.8), backup lineman Guy Whimper (minus-6.0) and center Fernando Velasco (minus-4.9).

Miller’s grade might seem surprisingly low, but he returned early in the serious from a major knee injury that occurred in December 2012, and his blocking execution was far lower at the start than it normally is for him. His minus-9.2 rating as a run blocker was the second lowest on the team to Beachum’s minus-9.8. (Overall, Beachum graded out at minus-3.2). Last season, Miller was 6.8 overall.

Running back Le’Veon Bell graded out at 4.3, a good rating for a rookie. (Former Steelers first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall, allowed to leave as a free agent after the 2012 season, was a minus-3.5, by the way. And the league’s lowest-graded running back was Ray Rice of Baltimore at minus-16.2.

An interesting Roethlisberger statistic. His “true” pass completion percentage was 68.1 percent (375 of 550), discarding passes that were intentionally thrown away, batted down or spiked. Also, 36 of his passes were dropped.

DEFENSE
Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons (1,093 snaps each) were the only defensive players to be on the field for every opposing offensive snap.

Polamalu was the highest-graded player at 12.2, including a 13.9 rating in pass that was far the best on the team. (The second-highest was Cam Heyward’s 3.5.) The lowest-rated pass defender was cornerback Ike Taylor at minus-14.1; Pro Football Focus credited opposing wide receivers with catching 71 passes for 1,043 yards and six touchdowns against him.

Taylor had a big drop-off from last season. He ranked 97th among the 110 cornerbacks who played on at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, compared to 33rd among 113 cornerbacks last season, when his pass coverage rating was 4.0.
Heyward was second to Polamalu with an 11.3 rating, and cornerback William Gay was third at 11.1. Fourth was outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley at 10.8; Woodley was limited by two calf injuries to 146 snaps over the second half of the season. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds had a 9.5 grade, and his 5.1 grade in run defense was second on the team to Steve McLendon’s 5.7.

The lowest-rated player, by far, on defense was defensive end Ziggy Hood, who was minus-14.0, including a minus-10.6 rating as a pass rusher. Taylor was minus-8.4 overall; rookie inside linebacker Vince Williams was minus-5.2, though he graded out better during the second half of the season than the first.

Rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones was minus-3.9 overall and minus-5.7 as a pass rusher (with one sack).

And remember how this was expected to be a critical season for former third-round draft choice Curtis Brown? Due to various off-field and injury issues, he played all of one snap on defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS
The best-graded special teams player was Robert Golden at 10.5; he was credited with a team-high 11 tackles and two assists. Antwon Blake had nine tackles and two assists but only a minus-0.5 rating (he had four missed tackles). Pro Bowl punt returner Antonio Brown had a 5.3 rating.

Kicker Shaun Suisham converted a team-record 93.8 percent of his field goal attempts (30 of 32), yet he ranked 39th and last among the league’s most active kickers at minus-1.1.

How could that be, given his high field-goal percentage?

Suisham was last in the league in kickoffs at minus-1.1 ( Matt Prater of Denver was the leader at 52.6) because only 24 of his 86 kickoffs went for touchbacks. (Prater, by comparison, had only 33 of his 114 kickoffs returned, or 27.2 percent to Suisham’s 64 percent). And Suisham was the only regular kicker in the league who didn’t attempt a field goal of 50 yards or more. (Five kickers attempted seven such kicks.)

December 19, 2013
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Keisel hasn’t ruled out playing somewhere else next year

Brett KeiselBrett Keisel referred to himself as a Yinzer.

He also said, quite emphatically, that he bleeds Black and Gold.

He also made it known that he plans to raise his family in Pittsburgh once his playing days are done with the Steelers.

While his days left as a Steeler might be numbered – as in less than two weeks – that doesn’t necessarily mean that the man affectionately known as “The Beard” is done playing football.

Keisel said following practice on Thursday that although he would love to come back next year with the Steelers, the 35-year-old has yet to rule out playing somewhere else next year.

“It’s possible,” Keisel said. “I feel like I can stay play. We will see what happens. I try not to think about it too much because I am still here and still part of the team and still fighting with these guys. When the time comes I will sit down with my family and decide what is best.”

Keisel is in the final year of his 5-year, $18.85 million contract he signed in 2009.

The Steelers spent the past two offseasons making their defense younger by purging veteran talent like James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and James Harrison.

In those instances, the organization made the decision for the player by not offering them a contract to return or release them. That could happen again with Keisel.

“That’s very possible and the nature of the business that we are in,” Keisel said. “Everybody is getting younger and whatever happens, I am grateful for the time I have been here and the success that we have had. I want us to go out strong and go out on a positive note.”

Keisel is still nursing a foot injury that’s kept him out of the majority of the past five games.

He is expected to play Sunday in Green Bay.

“I have had enough of standing around, I am a worker bee,” Keisel said.

Keisel, a seventh-round pick in 2002 out of BYU, has 35 tackles, two sacks and 23 quarterback hurries/pressures.

December 18, 2013
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Garvin Plans to Reach Out to Bengals’ Huber

huber

By Alan Robinson

Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin plans to reach out to injured Bengals punter Kevin Huber to tell him that he is thinking of him and hopes his recovery goes well.

“I’ll probably say something to him, let him know I’m praying for him and (I) hope he gets healthy,” Garvin said Wednesday.

Garvin’s helmet-to-chin block Sunday on Huber, which occurred when the punter was trying to prevent Antonio Brown’s 67-yard punt return touchdown, resulted in a broken jaw, a cracked vertebra and a concussion for Huber. He will miss the rest of the season and the playoffs.

Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham, who often gets involved in trying to make tackles on returns, said he feels badly for Huber.

“Playing this game is difficult; it’s a violent game,” Suisham said. “Certainly, watching the clip with Kevin getting hit like that – over the years, I’ve gotten to know him and I’ve got a lot of respect for him – certainly I hate to see him be hurt like that. … But football is a dangerous game.”

The hit, while not penalized, violated the NFL’s rule that declares that punters are defenseless players throughout a play and cannot be struck in the head or neck area by a helmet, forearm or shoulder. Garvin is expected to be fined.

NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino said during his weekly NFL Network appearance that the Steelers should have been penalized 15 yards, a penalty that would have nullified Brown’s touchdown.

“This is an illegal block,” Blandino told the NFL Network. “It should have been a flag for a 15-yard penalty. … This will certainly be a point of emphasis this week, especially for our referees, who are responsible for the punter on a play like this.”

Multiple Steelers players defended Garvin on Wednesday, saying it is impossible during high-speed plays to determine if a player who is attempting to throw a block or make a tackle is a punter or kicker.

The players said on such plays, they’re looking only for a player wearing an opposing jersey.

“Everybody is out there wearing a helmet, everybody is moving fast and you just react and hit,” safety Shamarko Thomas said.

Garvin said he can’t change the way he plays because of the hit, even if he is fined.

“When you’re playing football, you don’t think of all that, you’re thinking about doing what you’ve got to do to make a play,” Garvin said. “I wasn’t out there trying to be vicious or anything like that, I’m just trying to do what I can to make a play and help my team out.

“When you’re in a game, you’re trying to make a play, that’s all I’m thinking about.”

December 16, 2013
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Steelers Need a Ton of Help — Just Like in 1989

How did this game come about? It wasn't easy.

How did this game come about? It wasn’t easy.

By Alan Robinson

If you’re a Steelers fan, you also need to be a Jets fan.

It might be difficult. It might go against all you value. It might pain you to have to root for a team that is coached by former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. It might trouble you to root for a team that still writes a pay check for Mark Sanchez.

Here’s why: The Jets help offer the one circuitous route to the playoffs that still remains for the Steelers.

After beating the Bengals 30-20 on Sunday night, here’s what the Steelers need to happen:

– The Steelers (6-8), of course, must beat the revitalized Packers (7-6-1) on Sunday in Green Bay and the Browns (4-10) at Heinz Field on Dec. 29. One loss leaves the Steelers out of the playoffs and saddled with their first losing record since they were 6-10 in 2003.

– The Ravens (7-6) must lose two of their three remaining games. They play at the Lions (7-6) on Monday night, the Patriots (10-4) at home on Sunday and at the Bengals (9-5) on Dec. 29. The Bengals, by the way, finish up at home against the Vikings and Ravens as they try to secure the AFC North title.

– The hot Dolphins (8-6) must go cold in a hurry and lose to the Bills (5-9) in Buffalo on Sunday and to the Jets (6-8) in Miami on Dec. 29. One Dolphins victory eliminates the Steelers because Pittsburgh cannot get to nine wins.

– The Chargers (7-7) must lose once as they finish up the season at home, either to the Raiders (4-10) on Sunday or to the Chiefs (11-3) on Dec. 29.

– The Jets not only must beat the Dolphins, they must win Sunday in the Meadowlands against the Browns. Even if the Dolphins lose their final two, it is imperative to the Steelers that the Jets also beat Browns because the Dolphins own the head-to-head tiebreaker with Pittsburgh.

If they all scenarios play out, the Steelers, Ravens, Dolphins, Chargers and Jets all would be 8-8. Because ties are broken first INSIDE THE DIVISION, the Steelers would eliminate the Ravens based on a better division record. Similarly, the Jets would eliminate the Dolphins because of a better division record.

The Steelers then would eliminate the Jets based on head-to-head play (the Steelers’ 19-3 win on Oct. 13) and the Chargers based on a better conference record.

Too much to hope for? The 1989 Steelers faced a similar situation going into the last weekend of the season. When the Oilers beat the Browns, 24-20, in a Saturday game to clinch the AFC Central, the Steelers had a very narrow path to the postseason:

– The Steelers (8-7) had to win at Tampa Bay (5-10).
– The Raiders (8-7) had to lose at the New York Giants (11-4).
– The Colts (8-7) had to lose at the Saints (8-7).
– The Dolphins (8-7) had to lose at home to the Chiefs (7-7-1).
– The Bengals (8-7) had to lose at Minnesota (9-6).

All of the above happened, capped off with a Vikings 29-21 win in a Christmas night game against Cincinnati (more than 24 hours after the Steelers won in Tampa). And those Steelers went on to upset the Oilers in Houston in an AFC wild-card game, then lost narrowly at Denver to just miss reaching the AFC title game — and in a season that began with a 51-0 loss to the Browns and a 41-10 loss to the Bengals.

December 12, 2013
by Alan Robinson


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Robinson: Clark says Bengals don’t ‘respect’ Steelers — Harrison aside

ryan-clarkJames Harrison, Ben RoethlisbergerBy Alan Robinson

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the motivational playbook.

Want you give your team some incentive? Simply recite the “They don’t respect us” theme.

It’s exactly what Ryan Clark is doing as the Steelers (5-8), all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, take on the Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) Sunday at Heinz Field. The Bengals can lock up the AFC North with a win and a Ravens loss, while a Steelers win would mean only that they still have a chance to avoid their first losing season in 10 years.

Clark believes these Bengals, with a cast largely assembled in the last few seasons, don’t really respect or worry the Steelers all that much.

Maybe it’s because the Bengals – headed to the playoffs for a third consecutive season – have reversed a trend that saw them dominated by the Steelers for a decade.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of respect for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cincinnati,” Clark said on a conference call with Cincinnati reporters. “I don’t think they necessarily understand the history, or know the history, nor care about it.”

The Bengals effectively put the Steelers out of the playoffs by winning in Pittsburgh last December, then beat them 20-10 in a Monday night game the second week of this season.

Before that, the Steelers won 20 of 26 against Cincinnati from 2000-2012, including season series sweeps in 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011.

“Those guys play hard,” Clark said of the Bengals. “They talk and, for me, that’s exciting. It’s always good to play against good players who feel like they’re better than you. It makes for a good game for both teams.”

There’s another angle to the Sunday night game that would have been much bigger before the Steelers effectively slid out of the playoff race: The return of James Harrison to Pittsburgh. The five-time Pro Bowl linebacker left the Steelers after last season because the two sides couldn’t agree to a reworking of his contract.

“Hopefully it (the welcome is) a good one. James did a lot of great things here,” Clark said on the conference call. “A lot of those No. 1 defenses were in large part to the efforts of James Harrison. Hopefully they cheer him. Mike Wallace got booed last week but his situation was a lot different than James’s situation. So hopefully they give him the reception he deserves.”

When the Steelers were in Cincinnati in September, Harrison played only 14 snaps. But he’s now being used in a variety of ways in the Bengals’ defense – even as a tackle, at times – and he played 52 snaps last week.

Clark isn’t surprised the Bengals picked up Harrison, even though, at 35, he is past his prime and isn’t the dominant playmaker he was when he was chosen as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Do the Steelers miss Harrison in the locker room?

“I mean, you’ve tried to talk to him. You know it’s tough to get a conversation out of James,” Clark said on the conference call. “(But) the things you learn from James, you learn by the way he works. To watch a guy in the weight room who works as hard as he does in season and out of season. To watch a guy that when he practices, he practices with a weight vest. He goes hard every play. He runs to the ball every play. He works on his rush moves every play. And this is even after he was named league defensive MVP.

“When you see a person who’s accomplished what he’s accomplished and made the money he’s already made and to still continue to work the way he’s worked? That is contagious. And it’s not only contagious, it’s at least setting an example of what it takes to be a great football player. James did all those things while he was here.”

It is obvious that Ryan Clark respects James Harrison. Even if he believes the Bengals of today don’t have all that much respect for the Steelers of yesterday — James Harrison aside.

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