Monthly Archives: November 2013

Another Steeler-Raven Classic

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Photo Courtesy: Steelers.com

This thanksgiving, I’m thankful for the schedule makers at the NFL for getting this one right. Coming into the game, nine of the last eleven games in this rivalry have been decided by three points or less.

Whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens play each other, the intensity and passion on each play, each hit, always feels like a winner take all duel to the death regardless of the win-loss records or the date on the calendar and thanksgiving night was no different. This was playoff football in November, because the loser very well could be on the outside looking in at the NFL Playoffs come January.

This game for all intensive purposes was the first possible playoff elimination game of the 2013 season. Both teams being 5-6 and with a small chance of catching the Cincinnati Bengals for the AFC North title, needed to win to keep their Wild Card playoff chances alive.

I’ve been on the Steelers aging D all season for not holding up their end of the bargain, but I have to give credit where credit is due, if it weren’t for them the Black & Gold would’ve gotten routed because the offense struggled in the first half.

Aside from Baltimore’s first drive, where Joe Flacco picked on defensive backs William Gay and Ike Taylor, The D implied a bend but don’t break philosophy holding the Ravens to 5 field goals even while giving up 311 total yards. Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau’s D looked very reminiscent of years past holding Baltimore to 1 out of 4 in the red zone.

The offense took longer to get going, putting up zero points in the first half and countless three and outs. In past weeks Roethlisberger looked more and more like a two time winning Super Bowl Champion QB. His second half on Thursday night was no different as he went 28 of 44 passing for 257 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was money on the 13 play, 79 yard TD drive, then threw a great catchable pass to Emmanuel Sanders on the 2 point conversion to give Pittsburgh a shot to tie.

Lost in the drama of the game, Big Ben is now tied with Terry Bradshaw for most touchdown passes in Steelers history with 212. Roethlisberger also got plenty of help from Le’Veon Bell. Bell had 16 carries for 73 yards and a TD to go along with 7 catches for 63 yards.

Think about this. What if Bell’s touchdown where his helmet was knocked off had stood and the touchdown pass to Jericho Cotchery had been the tying two point conversion? I believe the Steelers would have escaped with their fourth win in a row because they had all the momentum to finish the Ravens off in overtime. But games aren’t won and loss on what ifs.

At 5-7, Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are still barely alive with a more favorable schedule than the Ravens. Baltimore’s last four opponents have a record of 24-19-1. Their two key games are against division leaders New England Patriots and the Detroit Lions. The Steelers final four opponents are a combined 21-23-1. Their only big game is at Green Bay, potentially without QB Aaron Rodgers. Pittsburgh would also have a tie breaker against Baltimore with a better record against common opponents, so anything’s possible.

Big Brother is STEEL the Bully on the Block!

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Photo Courtesy: Steelers.Com

A month ago it looked as though the Cleveland Browns would finally knock their big brother out. Instead the narrative in this “rivalry”—if you can still call it that—is the same, another dominating performance by the Steelers over the Dawgs. Pittsburgh has now won 22 of the last 25 against Cleveland going back to 2001.

After a firework filled first half last Sunday against Detroit, this week was a lull until Roethlisberger hooked up with Antonio Brown for a 41 yard touchdown. Then a forced fumble and recovery by Troy Polumalu opened the door for Roethlisberger and the Steeler Offense to stretch the lead against a Browns defense that ranked 4th in the NFL.

The Steelers D is starting to resemble what Pittsburgh fans are accustom to, sacking Cleveland Quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden 5 times and creating turnovers. Three fumble recoveries, an interception returned for a touchdown and the first for the Steelers D in 16 games led to 17 of the 27 points scored.

My only gripe is the Steelers D gave up 200 plus yards to one wide receiver and this wasn’t Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, the undisputed best in the NFL. Josh Gordon had 14 receptions for 237 yards and a touchdown. This only highlights the greatest weakness in this team throughout this season and most likely what will cost them if they don’t make the playoffs. But, at least a majority of it came in garbage time.

The Steelers play is bitter sweet. On one hand you’re happy to see them play with the sense of pride from an organization that has the most Super Bowl Trophies. But, on the other hand, you’re shaking your head in disappointment that they didn’t figure it out sooner.

Pittsburgh still has a chance to win the AFC North division with another game against the struggling Cincinnati Bengals and can still make the playoffs as a wild card if they don’t win the North. The only teams that have a better shot at grabbing that last spot would be the Tennessee Titans who beat the Steelers in week one, and the Oakland Raiders who beat Pittsburgh in week eight.

Unfortunately they are entering a tough situation this week playing two games in four days on the road; their next on Thanksgiving night at Baltimore. If they can continue to use this winning recipe that has helped them win three in a row—5 of their last 7—the Black & Gold will complete one of the most improbable turnarounds in recent NFL history. Once in the playoffs it’s a whole new ball game. Just ask the 2005 Super Bowl Champs.

AJ McCarron, Claim Your Heisman

As long as the Crimson Tide continue to roll, the Alabama quarterback will win the award.

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First I must say that Florida State’s Jameis Winston should win, but won’t because of the sexual assault investigation cloud hovering over him. That opened the door for Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel to repeat as the winner and he lost it with his 16-41, 2 interception performance at LSU. So did Oregon’s Marcus Mariotta with another embarrassing, lack luster loss at Arizona. That is why it’s now AJ’s to lose.

Many will say giving it to him would be like giving it to him as a career achievement award. Many will argue he plays with the best collection of amateur athletes in the country in the Alabama Crimson Tide. You could also say he’s not exciting enough, but if you go on statistics, he’s the best player on the best team in college football. His stats don’t lie.

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He is also now the all time winningest QB in Alabama’s rich football history.

No doubt if you gave me my pick I’d rather watch Johnny Football or Famous Jameis, but if the Heisman voters are going to adhere to the mission statement of the award which is : The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy Trust ensures the continuation and integrity of this award….. The Trustees, who all serve pro bono, are guided by a devotion to college football and are committed to community service and the valued tradition which the Trophy represents.

McCarron has been a model student athlete for the past four years and exemplifies the Heisman mission. Based on everything that happened on and allegedly off the field with the other candidates, he has to be the next Heisman Trophy winner, unless the Tide stumble—or he plays horiffic—against Auburn or in the SEC Title game. My vote is for AJ McCarron. Now I just have to become an official Heisman voter.

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Photo Courtesy: Sports Illustrated

Ugly, Yet Gutsy Steelers

The Steelers offense invited the Detroit Lions into a shootout and then the Defense looked as ugly as the 1934 throwback jerseys they were wearing.

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Photo Courtesy: Steelers.com

For the second week in a row, the Steelers Offense came out trying to dictate the tone of the game with the hurry up offense QB Ben Roethlisberger loves so much. The drive ended with the Steelers scoring their first points on their opening drive all season with a 34 yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to the NFL’s leading receiver in catches, Antonio Brown. The second drive brought similar results and ended with a 47 yard TD from Roethlisberger to Brown.

It’s clear the hurry up offense caught the Lions off guard, and should be something the Steelers should explore using more in their final 6 games. The franchise QB loves it—it worked to the tune of 7-8 passing , 121 yards and 2 TDs in their first two possessions—why not use it. Along with winning games, it could end all those trade talks too.

Roethlisberger may be begging for more help on offense, but it’s the lack of it from the defense that will keep him from winning another Super Bowl with the Steelers.

Matthew Stafford and Calvin—Not Johnson or P Diddy—racked up 327 passing and 179 receiving yards in the first half alone to bring the Lions back from a 14-3 first quarter deficit to lead 27-20 at the half. The biggest disappointment is cornerback Ike Taylor who dropped two Ints in his stomach—while giving up the bulk of the passing yards—that would’ve save the Steelers 10 points.

I’ll give the D credit for making the right halftime adjustments and holding “Megatron” without a catch in the second half and Matt Stafford to 3-16 passing and that offense to zero points.

Going further, the defenses’ problem is not bad or lack of coaching, but rather old players with a lack of talent. Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau needs more young talented guns. General Manager Kevin Colbert should forget about saving veterans players to lead with experience, they have Head Coach Mike Tomlin and Coach LeBeau for that. It’s time for a youth movement in the Burgh.

Ike Taylor was the biggest goat of the game until the Lions failed on a fake field goal run that cost them a 30-23 lead in the fourth. If the Steelers luck into the AFC playoffs, this will be the game that got them in. Gutsy performance from a team that’s been down most of the season.

Sidenote:The Detroit Lions haven’t won in Pittsburgh since 1955 (0-8) thanks to the curse of Bobby “Night train” Lane (Google it kids). Just for perspective, Steelers Defensive Coordinator and former Lion great Dick LeBeau was a freshman at Ohio State! Now they’re 0-9.

Craft-ing a Niche

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Photo Courtesy: Kelly Roderick/ The Latern

Ohio State’s Aaron Craft doesn’t look like the current prototypical NBA point guard in the likes of a Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving or Russell Westbrook. But, what he does have should make him one of the first point guards-EMPHASIS ON POINT GUARD-selected on June, 26, 2014 at the NBA Draft.

As I sit here watching him lead this Buckeye team against Marquette, devoid of a “College Star”, I see even more evidence to support my premise. First, he almost messed around and got a triple double; 10 points, 10 assists and 7 rebounds and 2 steals while leading the Scarlet and Gray to a 52-35 victory.

Off the court Craft has great character, highly intelligent (2011-2013 Academic All-American) and a leader in the Ohio State community. On the court he has a high basketball IQ, competes tenaciously, fierce on defense with quick hands and feet, plays within himself and again, is a great leader. He makes clutch shots, even though many scouts have said shooting is his biggest weakness at this point in his career. He struggles to consistently hit the 15 foot to 3 point jump shot, but that is a skill that can be thought.

All these are reasons all 30 NBA teams should be looking to add him to their roster. Sure, most teams will be maneuvering to select Kansas Freshman Andrew Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle or Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart. Those are the guys touted as once in a generation franchise players you can build around for the next 10 years and put fans in seats while the team struggles.

Craft is the kind of player teams looking to win NOW should draft. Think about a team like the Indiana Pacers who were a point guard away from beating the eventual Champion Miami Heat to go to the 2013 NBA Finals. It was turnovers and poor shot selection that led to their playoff exit. Those are areas in which Craft excels at. You already have playmakers on your team in Super Star on the rise Paul George, Former All Stars David West and Danny Granger. Craft is a perfect fit to not get in their way while doing what he does best.

How about the L.A. Clippers? Since trading away backup point guard Eric Bledsoe—to the Suns to acquire more shooters to go around Chris Paul—their second unit has struggled early in the 2013-2014 season. Craft would be the perfect compliment to Paul on the second unit to steady the troops and make sure a scorer like Jamaal Crawford gets quality shots to build upon leads.

Or what about the Memphis Grizzles behind former Buckeye and emerging all star in Mike Conley Junior. Craft would play a keep role in helping them climb back to the top of the western conference ranks after coming very close to a NBA Finals appearance last season.

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Playing in the Big Ten, Craft is used to defending NBA caliber point guards, like Utah Jazz’s Trey Burke.

What I’m getting at is, if you want to win now, Craft should be your choice. Especially if you’re selecting in the middle to late parts of the first round. Teams in this position are generally a key role player away from winning it all. Aaron Craft may not sell many jerseys in your arena team shop—unless it’s in Value City Arena—but he will help you hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Owners and GMs need to decide what’s more important. You’re on the clock.

College Sports True King is Back!

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In my opinion, College Basketball is better than College Football.

I know I’m going to get killed for this and I don’t care! College Basketball is better than College football.

In the midst of the first week of the season, I was riveted by the 24 hours of basketball on ESPN from Akron versus St. Mary’s to Hartford at last season’s NCAA tourney darling Florida Gulf Coast aka “Dunk City”, to Michigan State versus Kentucky and Duke versus Kansas. Each and every game has brought a level of excitement and intrigue that you don’t get from early season college football games.

My opponents will say, each individual game doesn’t matter on the hardwood as much as on the gridiron. They’ll say the NBA one and done rule makes a mockery of amateur athleticism and doesn’t give college programs as chance to groom top talent and build into a true power house program. They’ll also say the college game lacks an uptempo flow because of over coaching and tightly officiated games that end in a final of 60 to 58—read my article on how to fix college basketball.

My responses to these claims will be to say true. BUT, I will say, how many times can you watch top 10 ranked teams in the country play each other in the first week of the season, knowing they still can accomplish their overall goals if they lose. The matchup between #1 Kentucky versus #2 Michigan State Tuesday night was the earliest the top 2 teams have played against each other ever, and the first time it’s happened in the regular season since 2008. That will NEVER happen in college football, even with the new playoff. Plus, how great is it to see top teams play each other and not inferior opponents they’ll beat by 30 points in an effort to remain undefeated.

The NBA one and done rule actually challenges programs to find and recruit the best talent to build a program. Take a look at defending National Championship Louisville. That roster had eight seniors and juniors. Coach Rick Pitino who has in the past recruited highly touted prospects, went a different route and offered scholarships to guys who fit his system. Then he groomed them over time together to become champions. Outside of the 2012 Kentucky Wildcat team led by Freshman Anthony Davis and the 2003 Syracuse Orange team led by an eighteen year old Carmelo Anthony, college basketball has still been ruled by rosters filled with upper class-men who’ve grown together for a couple of years. So one and done is not ruining the game.

As far as the slow paced style of play, that comes down to coaching preference based on talent available. I played in a lower level division in college where our philosophy allowed us and our opponents to play games in the the high 80s/low 90s, with the same rules as the upper level divisions. So it can be done, on any level.

The “upset factor” is another thing you get more in basketball than football. Any given night a mid major team can knock off a major. How often does that happen in Football? Maybe once a season? Appalachian State beating Michigan at the big house doesn’t happen three or four times a season. The same goes for North Dakota over Kansas State in Little Manhattan. Big upsets are a regular multiple occurrence on the hardwood season after season and then in the NCAA Tournament.

Also, more importantly, there isn’t much controversy surrounding polls and national championships. Thanks to March Madness, the champs are crowned where they should be, on the court. Right now we are in the final year of the BCS system in football, headed to a playoff. But in this final year we’re on a collision course to a nightmare with 4 undefeated teams and a one loss team in Stanford that has a better resume than all of them. You can bet if an undefeated Ohio State team—who has a weak strength of schedule, thanks to the BIG 10 and playing inferior non conference opponents—gets into the National Championship game, so called experts will be up in arms and calling fowl. That doesn’t happen with a tournament like March Madness, although I’m pretty sure the first year of the football playoff will spark controversy over what four teams deserve to duke it out on the field. But at least the Title will be decided on the field, not on computers.

Please know that I love football. I’m glued to my TV watching it every week from late August through January. My premise is based on wanting to see the best against the best whenever, wherever. College Basketball gives us that excitement for four months. I think it’s great we don’t have to wait to the end of the season to see it.

STEEL Fighting

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The Steelers offense set a physical tone with the running game on the first drive. Photo Courtesy: Steelers.com

We shouldn’t expect anything less from a Mike Tomlin coached team.

It was evident from the first drive the steelers wanted to establish a physical tone. The offense ran three straight run plays with Le’Veon Bell, one from the wildcat formation—before Ben Roethlisberger’s Interception and return set up the Buffalo Bills first three points.

A week after being embarrassed by the New England Patriots aerial assault, the black & gold wanted to get back to their roots of smash mouth football.

They won the time of possession battle 35:16 to 22:44 and rushed for 136 total yards. 56 more than their season average.

The defense rose up to hold rookie QB E.J. Manuel and the Buffalo Bills offense in check. The Steeler D only gave up 227 total yards, 75 which came in desperation in the final seconds of the game that yielded their only touchdown. They also held the Bills to 95 rushing yards, their season average is 140.7.

I say it every week, mathematically they are still alive for the postseason, especially with the Baltimore Ravens knocking off the Cincinnati Bengals. Pittsburgh plays both teams again, holding the tie breaker against the Ravens and two games against 2nd place Cleveland. Anything is possible, but more importantly it’s just nice to see them put up a fight.