Wednesday, January 5, 2011

NFL Playoffs: Guarantees, Players to Watch and Predictions!

Matt Aaron fills you in on everything you need to know before the NFL postseason begins.

Who said the holidays are over? Bring out the snacks, hang the pigskin where the mistletoe was and dangle the jerseys from the mantle, because it is time to feel festive again! The NFL Playoffs begin this Saturday and it does not get much better than this for professional sports in America. In anticipation for kickoff, I have developed a bounteous amount of information that will get you ready for the postseason. The following information contains 4 playoff guarantees, a number of players to keep an eye on and the official 2010-2011 NFL Playoff predictions, including which team will elevate the coveted Lombardi Trophy.

Part 1: The Guarantees

Like the NFL, these guarantees are extremely quarterback heavy. There are many myths in football, such as defense wins championships and a stout run game is absolutely necessary. Obviously it is important to be solid in these areas, but teams with all sorts of identities have won the Super Bowl in recent years. On defense, the 3-4, Cover 2 and 4-3 schemes have all won it all last decade. Rushing attacks have been ranked near the top, middle and bottom of the league over the same span. The one constant that every team needs is a great quarterback. In fact, 10 of the previous 12 Super Bowl MVPs have been either a quarterback or wide receiver.

QB is the most important position in sports. In, football, there is not even a close second. A team must have an above average signal caller in order to win it all. You can immediately point to Trent Dilfer, but there are exceptions to every rule. There is also something that nearly every QB that played in the Super Bowl in the last 10 years has in common. All except 2 came into their Super Bowl run with prior postseason experience. Tom Brady is the only quarterback to win the Super Bowl in the last decade without previously playing in the playoffs. Let’s be honest here, players like the GQ, Gisele, clutch gene, 3 time SB winning poster boy for the NFL do not come around too often. The other player lost in his Super Bowl and that would be Jake Delhomme. I do not have any rhyme or reason for this exception, other than ESPN’s Chris Berman gave him a slick nickname based off the Banana Boat Song (and the NFC was fairly weak in 2003).

Since 2000, Kerry Collins, Trent Dilfer, Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, Rich Gannon, Donavan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Hasselbeck, Peyton Manning, Rex Grossman, Eli Manning and Drew Brees have all played in at least one previous postseason game before reaching the championship.

The playoffs are a different beast. Experience cannot be taught and this year will not be any different. There are at least 2 teams, possibly 3, with a quarterback that has never felt the sensation and pressure of a NFL playoff game.

The Chicago Bears with Jay Cutler will not reach the Super Bowl.
The Kansas City Chiefs with Matt Cassell will not reach the Super Bowl.
The Seattle Seahawks with Charlie Whinehearst will not reach the Super Bowl. (Lets be honest here, the Seahawks with Matt Hasselbeck or even Jesus Christ himself at quarterback will not reach the Super Bowl. By the way, comparisons to the 2008 Arizona Cardinals are absurd.)

GUARANTEE #1: Both quarterbacks represented in the Super Bowl will have prior postseason experience. (My apologies to Bears, Chiefs and possibly Seahawks fans)

To build off the many myths and/or statistics a lot of analysts like to bring up will get us to our next guarantee. What is the most important statistic in football? There is absolutely a correct answer to this question and there is only one answer. It is not time of possession, rushing yards, rushing attempts (a new one that a lot of analysts are gravitating to) or starting field position. With red zone efficiency being the second most important statistic, graze down a game’s box score until you reach the turnover row. It is by far the most important value in the NFL.

Take a look at the turnover margin of the last 6 Super Bowl winners in the playoffs

2004 Patriots: 11 forced compared to 1 giveaway. Margin of +10
2005 Steelers: 7 forced compared to 4 giveaways. Margin of +3
2006 Colts: 13 forced compared to 9 giveaways. Margin of +4
2007 Giants: 7 forced compared to 2 giveaways. Margin of +5
2008 Steelers: 8 forced compared to 2 giveaways. Margin of +6
2009 Saints: 8 forced compared to 1 giveaway. Margin of +7

In the 2010 regular season, here is where the 12 playoff teams rank in TO differential

1. New England Patriots +27
2. Pittsburgh Steelers +14
3. Atlanta Falcons +13
4. Philadelphia Eagles +12
T5. Green Bay Packers +10
T5. Kansas City Chiefs +10
T6. New York Jets +4
T6. Chicago Bears +4
T6. Baltimore Ravens +4
7. Indianapolis Colts -4
8. New Orleans Saints -5
9. Seattle Seahawks -9

This is the reason why the New Orleans Saints will not repeat. They avoided the dreaded Super Bowl hangover, but this is a much different team. With the lack of a threatening run game, Drew Brees was faced with many more 3rd and longs this year. Consequentially, his interceptions skyrocketed. Last year’s defense was opportunistic in every sense of the word, 2nd in the NFL with 39 takeaways. This year, only 23. Turning the ball over will prevent the Saints from marching back to the promise land.

The previous 6 Super Bowl winners averaged a turnover differential of +5.83. During those years, no winner has had a TO disparity less than +3. Moreover, the 12 playoff teams average a turnover differential, over the duration of the 2010 season, of +6.67. To be straightforward, great teams win the turnover battle and that leads to wins. This gets us to the second guarantee.

GUARANTEE #2: The Super Bowl Winner will have at least a turnover differential of +3 for the duration of the postseason.

Who would you rather have at quarterback in the playoffs, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger? Both fit their systems perfectly. Manning is regarded as an all-time great; Roethlisberger is not (yet). The media, message boards, etc. always bring up a Brady/Manning debate, but listen here, do not discredit Roethlisberger and what he has done in the playoffs thus far. He has an 8-2 record while Manning is .500 at 9-9. A myth is that Ben is simply carried by his defense. In reality, the Steelers defense has allowed 21.7 ppg in Roethlisberger’s 10 playoff games. The Colts defense has allowed 21.3 ppg in Manning’s 18 playoff games. 21 points is quite solid (and obviously the same), but not dominant by either team. It certainly proves that the Steelers defense have not carried Roethlisberger while the Colts defense have not waited for manning to carry them. Additionally, Roethlisberger averages 27 ppg on offense compared the Manning’s 23. The two time SB winner wins that battle by 4 points.

Many uninformed fans like to bring up Roethlisberger’s first SB performance at the age of 22. Did he play well? Hell no! But credit him for his performance in the 3 preceding playoff games. Actually, compare Roethlisberger’s 2005 playoff stat line with Manning’s Super Bowl run in 2007. It might surprise you.

Roethlisberger in 2005: 62% for 803 yards with 9 TDs (2 of those rushing) and 3 INTs
Manning in 2007: 63% for 1,034 yards with 4 TDs (1 of those rushing) and 7 INTs.

To be fair, let’s statistically compare both quarterbacks most recent Super Bowl run.

Roethlisberger in 2008 (3 games): 61% for 692 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT
Manning in 2009 (3 games): 68% for 956 yards with 6 TDs and 3 INTs

Manning played exceptional for the most part, but was playing from behind in his final 2 games. Roethlisberger ended Super Bowl 43 with one of the greatest drives in NFL history. Manning ended Super Bowl 44 with a pick 6.

In the playoffs, Roethlisberger simply looks better than Manning. The one game that is never talked about that sums up Ben’s play was in 2007, wild card matchup against the Jaguars. He threw 3 first half interceptions, enabling Jacksonville to head into halftime with a 21-7 lead. Steelers’ fans were crying for him to be benched. He comes out in the 2nd half and puts together a historic performance and actually gave the Steelers a 29-28 lead late in the 4th. His 2 touchdown passes in the second half and 3 touchdown leading drives in the 4th alone were more than impressive. Unfortunately for him, David Garrard made Tyrone Carter and James Harrison look silly scrambling for a huge gain on 3rd down with minimal time remaining. The Jags eventually defeated the Steelers on a game winning field goal. This was the game that I thought people would realize what this kid is made of. The following year he orchestrates the previously mentioned Super Bowl drive (putting his first SB behind him) and won his 2nd ring. His maturity is finally on the level as his play and that is not a good sign for the other 5 AFC playoff teams.

There is no denying that Manning is great. His AFC Championship performances against the Jets last year and against the Patriots in 2007 are Hall of Fame type stuff. With that being said, he has more struggles than success in the playoffs. He is only 3-3 in Wild Card games and has 9 interceptions in 6 career AFCC or Super Bowl games (also 3-3 in those 6 games). This year, he is playing with a depleted offensive unit and we will be taking his show on the road if he defeats the Jets. He’s had protection problems, idiot kickers and pick sixes in previous postseasons. The Colts have been playing for their playoff lives since they were 6-6 and that might help them heading into the postseason. Even with that, it does not add up to be a successful year for Manning in to the 2010-2011 playoffs. Looking at their previous history and current situations, here is your next guarantee.

GUARANTEE #3: Ben Roethlisberger will outperform Peyton Manning in the 2010-2011 NFL playoffs. Conclusion: With the impact that QBs have on their teams in this era of football, Ben will lead his team further than Peyton will lead his Colts, guaranteed!

The Patriots, Steelers, Falcons and Bears all earned a first round bye. Congratulations to at least one of those teams, because one of them will represent their conference in the Super Bowl. Notice that 3 of the 4 listed are the first 3 in turnover differential.
Last season we witnessed two 1 seeds face off for the first time since 1993. Yes, that was a rarity, but it did not stop an even longer streak. Since the current playoff format was implemented in 1990, a 1 or 2 seed (at least one) has reached the Super Bowl. In recent years we have watched a 3, 5 and 6 seed all win the Lombardi trophy, but they defeated a top seeded team.

When you look at the top seeds in this year’s bracket, it is not difficult to see why they earned their bye, especially with the Pats, Falcons and Steelers. All three teams have exceptional quarterback play, the ability to run the ball, do not turn the ball over and are well coached. Though this is not a inconceivable statement and it is not going to turn heads, it brings us to the next guarantee.

GUARANTEE #4: At least one top 2 seed will be playing in Dallas for a chance to raise the Lombardi trophy. (Double check your prediction sheet, if you filled one out and you do not have one of these four teams in the Super Bowl, you are wrong!)

Bonus Fact: 2 seeds have won the Super Bowl more than any other seed since the 12 team formatted was instituted in 1990.

Part 2: The players to watch

Thus far, I have stressed the importance of the quarterback position, but there will be some difference makers at other positions. In recent years, Tracy Porter, Larry Fitzgerald, Santonio Holmes and Ty Law have cemented their names in playoff glory. Here are a few names and situations to watch for. The following players are crucial to their team’s success.

5. John Abraham: Before we get to the young kids, lets start with a strong veteran presence. Speaking of young kids, that is exactly what this Falcons team is, especially in terms of overall postseason experience. Most of this team played in its first playoff game last year in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Abraham was not a factor at all in that game and Kurt Warner took advantage. Explosive offenses such as the Eagles, Saints and Packers might bring their talents to the fast track that is the Georgia Dome. Abraham is capable of taking over a series which he late in week 16 against the Saints (obviously was not enough). Defensively, he might have to take over the greater part of the game. His 102.5 career sacks and 13 this year proves that he can do just that.

The Falcons run a 4-3 defense and the dynamic duo of Jonathan Babineaux and John Abraham on the right side of that line might be the key to the dirty birds reaching big D in February.

4. LaMarr Woodley: Robert Horry was nicknamed Big Shot Bob for his playoff heroics in the NBA and it might be time to nickname Woodley, ‘Marr the big game star (it could stick). He has played in 4 playoff games… he has 2 sacks in all four games! Yes, 8 career playoff sacks already. This year, his production went down slightly. 50 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 2 interceptions. Not a bad year by any means, but LaMarr was quieter than OJ Simpson in a confession booth in a few big games this year. Against the Saints, Patriots and Jets, Woodley was completely shut down. Could a miraculous return of Aaron Smith all but guarantee more postseason dominance from the outside linebacker? Possibly, but understand this...the combination of Woodley and James Harrison and the pressure they get (or lack there of) is THE most important defensive factor for the Steelers. As great as he is, Troy Polamalu is a distant second.

3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis: Who needs a lawyer when you can have the entire lawfirm? This kid has been absolute money for the Patriots this year. He has 329 career carries (the majority of them this season) and he has zero career fumbles. This season he added 12 touchdowns to go with the 0 fumbles, which is not a bad ratio. He is a bruising back that always falls forward. After an inconsistent start to the season, Green-Ellis has averaged at least 4 yards a carry the last 8 games of the season. Around half way through the season, the Patriots abundant of tight ends started owning the middle of the field. It is no fluke that the middle of the field opened up once G-E found his stride. Tom Brady gets all the recognition, which the soon to be MVP deserves, but a bruising back might be the main reason why Terrific Tommy has not slipped on a Super Bowl ring in six years.

The Baltimore Ravens could possibly be the Pats first playoff matchup, a team that manhandled them last season in the playoffs. This season, the Pats defeated the Ravens in overtime despite B-E only rushing for 20 yards (Woodhead had 63 yards on 11 carries). More importantly, Brady had 5 interceptions combined in those two matchups. With weather prone to be factor and if this turns out to be the 2nd round battle, keep an eye on BenJarvus Green-Ellis. His ability to run on that stout defense early in the first half and his staying power late in the game will determine who wins this possible matchup.

2. LeSean McCoy: Philadelphia Eagles headlines this year have started and finished with Mike Vick. Every once in awhile you’ll get a front page display of Desean Jackson dancing and prancing. Talk about a quiet season for McCoy who simply put up over 1600 yards from scrimmage, over 1,000 on the ground while averaging a hefty 5.2 yards per pop. In the 4 loses in which McCoy played in (sat week 17 with nothing to play for), the former Pitt running back averaged 3.9 yards per carry, a slim 39.2 yards per game and 1 lonely rushing touchdown. He was a factor in the passing game in those loses, catching at least 4 passes in each of those games. They do not need him to be a factor in the passing game though. He needs to carry the rock and establish the run. McCoy will get his screen passes and the Eagles run the screen better than any other team in the league, but he needs to shrink the defensive box to open up room for Action Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

Bonus for the Bird fans!

2a. Asante Samuel: 7 Interceptions and 4 touchdowns in 12 postseason games. Hello video game stats! Samuel’s buoyancy and risk taking has paid off (and got him paid) in the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings run a silky smooth and perfectly timed double move together. The deep route is implanted in the Packers playbook. Will Asante bite? Or will he make another big pick in a big game? Either way, keep an eye on number 22.

1. Reggie Bush: This one is pretty simple. Chris Ivory is on the injured reserve and Pierre Thomas will be limited, if effective at all. Quarterback Drew Brees’ turnover numbers were ridiculously high and the lack of a dependable backfield was one reason why. Bush looked healthy against the Buccaneers in week 17 and he usually performs well in playoff games. The prevalent question still hovers around Bush. No, it’s not whether or not Kim still loves him (she does), but can he carry the ball 20-25 times? His season high in carries is 9

More importantly than carrying the ball 25 times, Bush will have to be a factor in the slot, catching the ball out of the backfield and in the punt return game. Rookie stud Jimmy Graham was hurt in week 17 as well; so can Reggie be Brees’ security blanket? There will be will a lot of shootouts in the NFC playoffs this year and if the Saints want to make a serious run, Bush will have to lead the NFL in total yards.

Bonus for Saints fans!
1a. Somebody on defense! Last year Tracy Porter elevated his team with 2 legendary interceptions on 2 legendary quarterbacks. During the 2009 season, Darren Sharper was ball hawking like he was 25 again. This year, the team has 8 interceptions total with Porter not building off his postseason success and only compiling 1. Jonathan Vilma provides the stability, leadership and grit that every defense needs, but will not provide the splash play. Roman Harper could be that guy. The safety has 3 sacks, 6 FF and an interception this year. He is athletic and will need all that athleticism to counter the fast and strong NFC offenses.

Part 2 Continued: Bonus for everyone!

To be direct, the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs will not make the Super Bowl. They are not experienced enough and do not have the talent compared to the other 10 teams. It is not a formula for success. BUT (and it’s a big but… obviously) anything can happen in the National Football League. If either of these teams somehow upset their way to Dallas, it will be up to a key, skill position star to put together a historic postseason.

Kansas City’s fate falls on the shoulders of Jamaal Charles. The 24 year old back had a blockbuster 6.4 yards per carry this year. He added nearly 500 receiving yards and his explosiveness is MVP material. Fantasy owners of Charles were frustrated at his lack of carries despite his production (still had 1,467 yards). Well Chiefs fans might be pleased that head coach Todd Haley limited his carries to 230. The former Longhorn, who has a career ypc average of 6.0, should be fresh to have 30-35 touches a game.

Baltimore comes to town this Sunday and their defense is still as good as advertised. Up front, Haloti Ngata is the best defensive tackle in the game. His strength will negate the power run game that Thomas Jones employs. As far as Matt Cassel, Ed Reed is intercepting everything. Despite how athletic Dwayne Bowe is, his unpredictability is worrisome as his readiness for the big stage. Mr. Charles’ talents are ready for the big stage.

The Seahawk’s fate also falls on a running back. He is a back that had high expectations entering this season, but did not quite live up to the hype. If Seattle wants to make one of the most improbable runs in sports history, Justin Forsett will have to introduce himself to America. Marshawn Lynch has received the bulk of the carries, but his 3.6 yards per carry will not control the clock enough for the Seahawks to stand a chance. Forsett is a better all around back in terms of running inside and out. He also brings an element of catching the ball out of the backfield. Quarterback questions loom over Pete Carroll’s squad and the defense has given up catastrophic point totals this season, including over 38 four different times. Unless Leon Washington returns 5 kicks during this postseason, Forsett will have to be magnificent.

Part 3: Predictions


New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts: The reason Coach Rex Ryan finds this “personal” is not because Peyton Manning touched his wife’s feet, it is because Ryan’s defenses have not been able to beat Manning in Baltimore or in New York. Mark Sanchez is banged up and will not be 100%. The Jets running game will not be factor. In fact the Colts rush defense allowed 66 yards per game in their final 4 contests. The Colts rush defense has not clicked like this since their Super Bowl run in 2007. Not a high scoring game, but Colts win at home.

Baltimore Ravens @ Kansas City Chiefs: Ray Rice will get the ball early and often and similar to last year’s wild card game against the Patriots, he can dominant it. Baltimore’s defense will get to Matt Cassel and Ed Reed will be licking his chops in the secondary. Do not ignore the fact that the Chiefs offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss accepted the Florida Gators OC position. Cassel did not look the same last week. There is no question that a QB and his coordinator’s relationship needs to be completely healthy and trusting. That is not the case right now. The Ravens’ experience will triumph in Arrowhead.

New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks: Okay, the Seahawks are at home and the 12th man is intense. Alright, they are keeping their starter quiet in order to force the Saints to prepare for both. Let’s see, the Hawks in essence started their playoffs last week and are in playoff mode. And lastly, absolutely none of that will matter in this contest. Drew Brees will be too much for a defense that is the worst in the playoffs and it’s not even close. They’re not playing Sam Bradford this week.

Green Bay Packers @ Philadelphia Eagles: What a wild card game this will be and it will be a shootout. Mike Vick’s health will be something to keep an eye on. If he is not 100%, Packers have the advantage. Somebody has to step up on the Green Bay defense and do not forget the ghastly performance they put forward against Kurt Warner last year. Will Clay Matthews get to Vick? It is quite possible and he has to be the one to lead this defense. The X factor is LeSean McCoy and the lack of a running game the Pack will have. The most exhilarating playoff game of the 2010-2011 season might just take place during Wild Card weekend. Eagles win what will be a great game


Indianapolis Colts @ Pittsburgh Steelers: The home team might be the healthiest they have been since early in the season. Rashard Mendenhall has looked fresh in recent weeks and Coach Mike Tomlin has limited his carries the last quarter of the season. Manning does not forget the “Protection problems’ his offensive line had in 2005 and the Steelers front 7 is even better in 2010. Indianapolis simply has too many injuries at their skill positions. The backfield has been so slim for the Colts this year that they brought in Edgerrin James’ cousin and Dominic Rhodes (who last I heard was working at Marvin Harrison’s sport’s bar). Pittsburgh at home is an easy pick.

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots: Many media outlets including the mothership have called the Ravens the Pats’ kryptonite. That simply is not true. Yes, Baltimore destroyed the Pats in the playoffs last year, but this year will be different. Nobody is talking about the horrific playoff performances Joe Flacco has put together in his young career. In 5 career playoff games, the 6 foot 6 QB has 1 touchdown and 6 interceptions. That is actually the good news. On top of that, he is only completing 47% of his passes, 132 yards per game and a passer rating of 46.5. Unfortunately for the Ravens this year, Flacco needs to outperform Brady which is as unlikely as you winning the Mega-Million Lottery drawing.

New Orleans Saints @ Atlanta Falcons: This is going to be the most intriguing matchup of the playoffs. These are two teams that know each other inside and out. The most recent matchup featured a game that went down the wire and Brees, as he tends to do, drove the ball 80 yards in a blink of an eye. This game will be different. Michael Turner was Dr. Jackal and Mr. Hyde against the Saints in their two games. If he carries the ball 30 times, effectively, such as he did in September, the Falcons will win at home. Similar to the Colts, injuries will finally catch up to the Saints.

Philadelphia Eagles @ Chicago Bears: Mike Vick vs. Julius Peppers, it does not get much better than that. Jay Cutler, a confident (borderline cocky) quarterback, will be humbled at home. The Eagles will be able to force 2-3 turnovers which will be enough to win on the road. Devin Hester and Desean Jackson should combine for 0 punt return yards, because each punt should sail 15 yards out of bounds. The exceptional Mike Vick story will create a new chapter as the Eagles fly to the NFC Championship game.


Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots: Tom Brady has not thrown an interception since week 6. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has never fumbled in his career. Will the Pittsburgh Steelers be able to force the Pats to make mistakes in Foxboro? It certainly is not implausible to think so with playmakers such as Harrison, Woodley, Timmons and Polamalu headlining the defense. Do not underestimate the physicality of the Pats defense, because they are just as mean and tough as the Steelers. Vince Wilfork (Sports Illustrated’s cover story this week) is an elite defensive force and allows Jared Mayo to eat up opposing team’s backfields. Unlike previous meetings, this game will be close. We all know that Tom Brady is Michael Jordan in terms of playoff performances, but Ben Roethlisberger might be ready to take that claim away from him. Steelers, behind Roethlisberger and his basketful of playmakers defeat the New England Patriots in a high scoring affair, even in blistering cold Foxboro.

Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons: Seriously, is this is a fairytale? Mike Vick back in Atlanta for a chance to play for the Lombardi Trophy? This is not wishful thinking, these are the two best teams in the NFC and they will play each other. Vick has finally mastered the QB position and the comparisons to Steve Young are warranted and down right accurate. The Falcons do not have the defensive speed, specifically on the line to contain Mike. Atlanta at home (despite Matt Ryan’s impressive home record) will actually hurt them, because the Eagles running indoors plays right into their team strengths. Eagles win this game relatively easy.


Philadelphia Eagles vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: Somebody call Ed Rendell and have him make sure no wusses are watching the all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl. Dick LeBeau will have the difficult task of containing Vick, but he has the talent to work with. Trent Cole will give Ben Roethlisberger headaches, but will he be able to bring the 260 pound QB down? The Eagles have 4 different players who have at least 3 interceptions this year and will give the Steelers offense a lot of different looks. This game is simple. With the dynamics that Vick brings to the table, how healthy will Troy Polamalu be? The freedom he is given will allow him to play in the box and shadow him. The second most important factor will be who has a bigger impact, Desean Jackson or Mike Wallace? Wallace will see more man defense and he will have the opportunities to put SB MVP numbers up. Steelers win in a close matchup and elevate their unprecedented 7th Lombardi Trophy.

I will conclude with this. I anticipate the playoffs starting with great enthusiasm and a lot of confidence in my guarantees and predictions. I hope you enjoyed reading this and the ultimate goal was to make you, the reader, critically think and help you develop your own guarantees and predictions. I emphasize my confidence, but there is no denying that many, if not all of them, could be wrong. If that is the case, well I will keep my head up high, because, well, Peter King still has his job! Until next time, Happy NFL Playoffs!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lets Talk Some Pitt Hoops

Matt Aaron takes a closer look at the 2010-2011 Pittsburgh Panthers basketball team.

Last year Pitt was one of the nation’s biggest surprises, but this year Pitt headed into the 2010-2011 season with lofty expectations. A 25 win tournament team (despite another early exit) that returns four starters and a seemingly bottomless bench. Can Jamie Dixon finally lead the Panthers to the Final Four? While with a respectable sample size under their belt and only days away from the New Year, lets weigh the pros and cons of the kids from Oakland.

Pro: Two guards that you can’t guard.

Aston Gibbs is a superstar. He averages over 16 points a game. He has an assist/turnover ratio that is as good as Levance Field’s was. He can take it strong to the bucket, shoots 45% from beyond the arc and does not miss from the charity stripe. He dropped 24 at Texas and 21 against the 5th ranked Huskies in front of the Oakland Zoo. When he is hot, he is certainly en fuego (all copywrite to Dan Patrick). He does not currently hold national recognition, but that will change come March.

Brad Wannamaker is the jack of all trades…and well, near master of all them. He has dismissed the notion that the loss of Jermaine Dixon’s defense will hinder this team in the long run. He can score, rebound, and pass, with a little bit of range for sugar on top. Both, his game and his face resemble that of Ron Artest (minus the rap cd and mental disorder). He primarily played the 3 last season, but has moved up to the 2 this year. That presents a physical challenge for other guards that most cannot handle. He is one of the most efficient shooters in the Big East as well. Wannamaker has scored at least 14 points 8 times this season, but has only attempted more than 8 shots twice.

Con: Lack of security a true PG can bring.

Gibbs usually starts as the point guard, but is a natural shooter. His ball safekeeping has been impressive to this point, but the challenge will only get thornier as he faces more suffocating competition. Teams like Georgetown and Villanova put a lot of pressure on the ball and Syracuse’s zone defense makes it tough to pass through. Travon Woodall gives the team 20 minutes a game as a true point which bumps Gibbs back to the 2. The only issue with Woodall is that he plays like many of the New York alums that preceded him at Pitt. Meaning he cannot shoot a lick. Even though Fields and Carl Krauser gave Pitt some exhilarating moments, the Panthers have not had a true, reliable point guard since Brandin Knight.

Pro: “Big” depth

Four different forwards play at least 16 minutes a game for Jamie Dixon, led by Gilbert Brown’s 25 a game. 3 other big men add solid minutes to put together a consummate 7 man rotation for the front court. Gary McGhee’s maturation and improvement over his four years has been a delight to watch. He is finally being a force underneath the basket and the hustle he showed against Connecticut put a rare smile to Coach Dixon’s face. Gilbert Brown has finally expanded his range and added a 3 point shot to his repertoire from the SF position. He has hit 2 or more tres 5 times this season. Solid minutes and contributions from youngsters, Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna, J.J. Moore and J.J. Richardson, are as sweet as candy, because it’s going to help now and later.

Con: Offensive consistency in the paint

Missing from close range has been a constant problem to this point of the season. It all falls on lack of concentration and patience underneath. McGhee is they only big right now who uses his body constantly to put him in good position for rebounds, so he is only one who can afford to miss bunnies. The more minutes the kids get, the better footwork they will have in the paint. There also is not a forward that can get his hands on the ball possession after possession to control the shot clock and the game. Gibbs and Wannamaker make up the primary scoring for this team (35 of the team’s 78 against UCONN) and a cold shooting night can become worrisome. The natural talent is there underneath; let’s see if it shines as we head into 2011.

What to expect?

Pitt is the best or second best team in the Big East. Syracuse led by a couple of guys who are 6-7 and 6-9 respectively, Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson, might hold the claim as the best Big East team (also are the best passing team in the league). This Pitt team has the formula of many previous squads sprinkled with some extra athleticism. Do not look too deep into the Huskies beat down at home, because UCONN is vastly overrated and will live and die by the play of Kemba Walker. That does not mean that Pitt won’t dominant legit contenders this season. This team is experienced and is very well coached. Their depth will be allow them to brush off the battle wounds that the Big East schedule will bring. Pitt plays Georgetown January 12th and that will be a much better measuring stick for this team at the moment. Can this team be a Final Four dancer? In the tournament, there will be a game in which depth does not matter and one player must put the Panthers on his shoulders. Pitt’s Final Four chances will fall on the shoulders of Aston Gibb’s and whether or not he wants to leave a legendary legacy in Oakland.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Top 5 reasons why the Pens are winning (outside of Sidney Crosby)

 The Pittsburgh Penguins currently have the 2nd best record in the NHL. Sidney Crosby's play has actually put hockey in the A block of Sportscenter, WAHOO! The Penguins have the highest goal differential in the entire league. Much of that credit goes to the points leader, Mr. Crosby, but this team's success is much deeper than that. Here are the top 5 reasons why the Penguins have earned a point in 17 of their last 19 contests.


 1. Chris Kunitz

General Manager Ray Shero might be looked at as a Grinch of some sort in southern California after stealing Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangrady for fan-favorite and young defensive man Ryan Whitney.

(Quick Quiz: Tell me what team Whitney currently plays for and get an extra stocking stuffer this Christmas!)

He has yet to be the playmaking, All-Star caliber winger that the Penguins seemingly need year in and year out. With that being said, year has taken a turn for the better. Specifically with him setting up Sid and not the other way around, in all totaling 22 assists so far this campaign. His 1 goal in the last month is worrisome, but he is still generating plenty of scoring chances. There is finally real chemistry between him and #87 which makes every line behind them that much better.

2. The 3rd Line

No Staal, No problem. The new generation has certainly played its part this season. Call it the buzz line, the energy line, the young and the festivus (Happy Festivus everyone!), or just call it a line that is producing. Mark Letestu, Chris Conner and Tyler Kennedy are clicking on all cylinders. They certainly do not bring the intimidation factor and elite forward play that Matt Cooke and Jordan Staal brought to the 3rd line last year, but they have impressed.

Dec. 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Letestu has been consistent all season and Head Coach Dan Bylsma knows what he can get from Kennedy. Conner has been the biggest surprise and has earned his ice time. He logged over 15 minutes 2 of the last 3 games and that number should keep increasing. There must be something special about the Pens and the ability for their 3rd line to work the cycle no matter who is on the line. Jordan Staal will eventually make his return to the lineup which will force some changes on this team and possibly the third line. The way they are playing right now, these three kids are here to stay.

3. Marc-Andre Fleury

When Crosby is asked about the recent tear the Penguins have been on, he is quick to bounce the attention off himself and stick it on his goaltender. After a miserable start to the season, Marc-Andre has strung together a Fleury of wins which has dipped his GAA to a respectable 2.30. Pittsburgh has the best penalty kill in the league and that falls directly on the French-Canadian’s shoulders. Monday, he was the catalyst that turned away 8, yes 8, Coyote power plays, enabling the Penguins to cruise to a 6-1 victory. The difference between his early season struggles and him winning 12 of his 13 is his confidence. When a goaltender is challenging shooters at the top of the crease, poke checking pucks when a forward has a free release or gloving down wicked snipes behind a wall of screens…then you know he is feeling it. That paints a daunting picture for the rest of the Eastern Conference.

4. The defense outside of Kris Letang

No disrespect to the future All-Star, but he clearly is getting the recognition that he deserves. (Hello leader in AS votes amongst defensemen as a write-in!) His improved discipline and ability to finish easily makes him the top Norris candidate at this point.

It’s the other defensemen that deserve a whole lot of credit. Along with Letang, Alex Goligoski, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik all have plus/minus ratings at plus 10 or better. The versatility of this core is what makes them one of the league’s best. Zbynek Michalek physicality in front of the net is the perfect compliment to Paul Martin’s two-way skills. Goligoski has been overshadowed by Letang’s emergence, but he is finally coming into his own as well. He is on pace for 15 goals and lately it looks like he went to the Evgeni Malkin school of skating.

Depth and adaptability are the reasons why this unit has held 12 out of the last 14 opponents to 2 goals or less.

5. Drum roll please…

Sidney Crosby!

You were lied to and deceived. Probably a similar feeling to when you learned that Santa Claus was not real. Two things are for sure though, any team would love to have Sidney Crosby under their tree and the destruction he is on is something that this league has not seen in a long, long time. His scoring streak has now reached 22 games. He is on pace for 65 goals and nearly 140 points. Sidney is averaging 1.70 points per game in a league in which teams are averaging just 2.80 goals per game. He is clicking in all facets of the game. His Lemieux like faceoff win and assist Monday night was a thing of beauty. With Staal out of the lineup and Malkin battling injury and disappearing problems, the C stitched on his jersey has never meant for and he has not disappointed.

He leads the league in goals, second in assists, first in points, second in power play goals, first in forward’s plus/minus and right now by far the best player in the league. With a point tonight against the Capitals, he will have the longest point streak in 18 years, back when Mats Sundin was lighting the lamp for the Maple Leafs eh.

Should he be mentioned with #99 and #66? That question may never be answered. But one thing is for sure, his point streak will be mentioned more times than that yearly question of who is better, Crosby or AO. Because right now, that is no question at all.

Honorable Mention: Geno the Machino who is healthy again and playing like it.

(Bonus Answer: Ryan Whitney currently plays for the Edmonton Oilers and is playing well for the Western Conference’s worst team)

Brought to you by Matt Aaron

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Forecast : Lots and Lots and Lots and Lots of Bowls.

Mike Nicastro answers some burning, self-proposed questions surrounding this years MUST WATCH College Football bowl games.

Why answer my own questions you say? Well I won’t answer this because once again, you didn’t ask.

Let’s kick things off with the Beef O’ Brady’s Bowl, as 8-4 Southern Miss takes on the Red Birds of Louisville in Tampa.

Just kidding. If you stopped reading there, I can’t blame you, because as did I. I’m sure all of my readers are just hootin’ and hollerin’ . . “Mike, bowl season started 3 days ago, a little late on the article aren’t you? Well no, Scrooge, actually I’m still a fragment premature.


(With the exception being the fighting Kyle Brotzman’s)
Wake me up on January 1st when the teams that earned themselves a chance at postseason play will surrender their New Years Eve celebrations with Snookie to compete in a tradition going strong for over 8 decades.

Enough nonsense . . let’s do this.

The 12 nights you can’t Miss-mas

1. MAACO BOWL LAS VEGAS - 19. Utah vs. 10. Boise State
The Rudolph the red nose reindeer bowl, because as I mentioned it’s the lone exception. How often do we get to see a matchup on the 3rd day of bowl season featuring two teams that were in the BCS top 5 as late as week 7? Answer- I’m not sure. But it can’t be often. The little giants of the past decade, the little engines that could, whatever the hell you want to call them, these two programs, and teams are pretty darn respectable. Keep in mind, each have been BCS busters in the past. Utah in 08 defeating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl en route to an undefeated season, and Boise in 06, lighting the Statue of Liberty’s fire in a thrilling overtime victory over Oklahoma, in the Fiesta. But I have a case of the “this year’s” and Utah’s 42nd ranked Pass Defense will struggle to contain the Broncos high powered attack. If you don’t know how I feel about QB Kellen Moore, scroll down. Although there won’t be any wedding proposals at the end of this contest, you can bet there will be fireworks. These teams will combine for 70+ points, making this one even more watchable. It’s Vegas Baby, the hands are dealt, the chips are on the table. Does Utah gamble enough to pull the upset? Or is Boise St. still America’s wildcard.

2. TICKET CITY BOWL – Northwestern vs. Texas Tech
Rise and shine college football faithful. I know you had a ridiculously fun night last night, but New Years Day is here. And this matchup which pits Big Ten vs. Big 12 middle of the pack squads kickoffs the start of significant Bowl games. Not many would be buying a ticket to this city bowl, if it wasn’t located in Texas where red and black should be in full force. But who are we kidding; this bowl is all about Northwestern. This game would not be as amusing or appealing if the Wildcats had won a bowl in the last 61 years. If my math is correct, the Wildcat fans and students have been wearing brown paper bags over their heads since 1949. Detroit Lions fans can stand up and take a bow. Although Northwestern’s program is being restored under former standout linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, the beat goes on, and the Christmas monkey stays on the wildcats back. Does anyone hear 62?

3. OUTBACK BOWL – Penn State vs. Florida
How many times can I use the word tradition in one paragraph? Well find out. If I would have told you 4 years ago that Urban Meyer would be out of the Coaching game before Joe Paterno, you would have made it a priority to send me coal for Christmas. Let me kill one rumor right now while I’m ahead . . Joe Paterno is not Santa Claus. He may be immortal, jolly, and love chocolate chip cookies, but he hasn’t given much to Penn State this year. The Nittany Lions two strongest wins, Temple and Michigan, not all that much to ride home about. On the other side of the coin, the Gators are in a rebuilding state as well, finishing 7-5 and losing the aforementioned Urban Meyer after the season. But regardless, much like Bowl season, this game is about tradition (once) and these are two of the winningest programs in College Football history. There may not be a Tim Tebow vs. Larry Johnson matchup, but two tenacious, underrated defenses will be on display. For your average fan of football, the Gators and Nittany Lions will certainly be the right of way on new years day.

4. GATOR BOWL – 21. Mississippi St. vs. Michigan
Chomp chomp chomp chomp chomp. I absolutely love this pairing, and think it is one of the more underappreciated bowls of the season, featuring two underappreciated teams. On Dasher, on Dancer, on Denard, running by Blitzens. Anytime Denard Robinson comes out of the house I’m tuning in, whether he’s playing football, going to the disco, or just walking to class, because he’s that suave. If you ask me, the real controversy wasn’t should or should not Cam Newton’s eligibility questions cost him the Heisman, it was how did the do it all quarterback from Michigan get snubbed of an opportunity to visit New York. The sophomore helped guide an offense that ranked sixth in the FBS with an average of 500.9 yards, and he set the NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,643. The big ten offensive player of the year gets an opportunity to play his first game ever in his home state, Florida where he takes on a considerably improved Bulldogs team that finished fifth in the competitive SEC West. The Bulldogs led by RB Vick Ballard nearly beat Cam Newton before he became Cam Newton, losing 17-14 in week two, and it took Arkansas two overtimes to tame the dogs.

5. CAPITAL ONE BOWL – 16. Alabama vs. 9. Michigan St.
Green vs. Red (sorta), an after Christmas special. But more importantly the best non-BCS bowl since the last best non-BCS bowl. Seriously, any other year Michigan St. might be playing for a national championship. Sparty lost one game this year, @ Iowa, but are ten point underdogs to preseason front-runner and defending champ, Alabama. The Tide certainly failed to live up to expectations, but could also picture themselves playing in a BCS bowl if not for the second half meltdown against Auburn. What im getting at, is these two teams are VERY good, and competed with the teams who are today being debated on which is playing best, Auburn or Wisconsin. The age old question regarding bowl games, who has more to play for, and who wants to be there more. My answer, Michigan state. The Spartans will play with a chip on their shoulder after feeling as if they were spurned in the grand scheme of things.

6. ROSE BOWL – 5. Wisconsin vs. 3. TCU
“In the grand daddy of them all. . . “ That title used to provide me with a chuckle because to be quite frank, it’s not anymore. Used to. This year’s Pasadena Parade is going to be special, showcasing two teams that you could make a legitimate argument as to being the finest team in the country right now. TCU finally gets their chance to prove they can play with the big boys, as they get their first REAL shot at a BCS game (I could talk about the poor decision the committee made by placing Boise-TCU together in last year’s Fiesta Bowl for days). The third-ranked Horned Frogs, owners of the nation's top defense, face a No. 4 Badgers team that reached the 70-point mark three times this season. If that doesn’t get you intrigued, I really don’t know what else to say. Unlike the national championship, there isn’t a ton of star power in this game. . just guys their wear their heart on their sleeves, and play tough hardnosed football. To make an Olympic reference, the winner of this game receives the Bronze Medal. John Clay, Monty Ball, and James White, the three wise men, pace this Badger offensive, combining for almost a total of 3,000 yds on the ground, while TCU’s Andy Dalton is one of the great players you’ve never heard of, tossing for 26 TD’s and only giving the ball away 6 times. But if there’s an X factor in this one, its Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien who quietly had one of the most efficient seasons in college football history, completing 75 percent of his passes en route to winning the Unitas Golden Arm Award.

7. FIESTA BOWL – Connecticut vs. 7. Oklahoma
Hear me out here. This Connecticut team may surprise a few people . . I’ll preface this by saying that I do have Oklahoma winning by multiple touchdowns, but i’ll give you a few reasons it may be closer then you think
1. Oklahoma has lost 5 straight BCS Bowl games
2. The sooners defense yielded two 100 yd games to Big 12 runners, and UConn’s Jordan Todman may be the best player on either side of the ball, ranking 2nd in the nation with 143 rushing yards per game.
And . . that’s all I have for you. To a point, im trying to convince myself that this game will be competitive. Although Demarco Murray, Ryan Broyles and the rest of Oklahoma’s overwhelming speed (13th in total offense 478.1 ypg and 17th in scoring 36.4 points per game) will most likely run Connecticut out of the building, you’ve got to root for Uconn in this one. Cinderella has received an invite to the ball, and they’re out to try and earn some respect for their conference. Could there be a Christmas Miracle in the works?

8. ORANGE BOWL – 4. Stanford vs. 13. Virginia Tech –
Two conferences in the ACC and Pac-10 that didn’t receive all that much attention this year. The Pac-10 Cardinal will have talent, tradition, and a little bit of luck on their side. Make that a whole lot of Luck. Stanfords signal caller and future number top 5 NFL draft pick in April will have a tough task facing Bud Adams hard hitting blitz first defense. From the something you probably didn’t know department, Virginia Tech became the only team to record 10 wins in 7 consecutive seasons after they beat Florida St in the ACC Championship, completing quite a turnaround after starting the season 0-2 in the non-conference with losses to the fighting Kyle Brotzmans’ and James Madison. In my valued opinion, this is the best matchup of coaches in the BCS bowls. Stanfords Jim Harbaugh one of the most promising understudy’s in the game, vs the Wily veteran Frank Beamer who is more consistent then peanut butter. When somebody finally explains to me what a Hokie is i'll pick this game . . for now, flip a coin.

9. COTTON BOWL – 9. LSU vs. 17. Texas A&M
A non BCS bowl right in the thick of things. The Tigers are most definitely not an offense-first team, but when they do have the ball they win games with their running game more often than they do with the arms of their quarterback (no names cough cough sneeze Jordan Jefferson). Who's ready to be drowned out in figures? LSU ranks 107th in the country in passing yards, averaging just 155.4 yards per game through the air. Their ground game is much better, but still not elite. Led by Stevan Ridley, the running game ranks 32nd in the country, averaging 179.2 yards per game. As for points scored, LSU puts up 28.8 per game, placing them 50th in the country. Texas A&M has been a pretty balanced team all year. They rely on both their defense and their offense. When they have the ball, they also employ quite the balanced attack. The Aggies' quarterbacks have averaged 281.8 yards per game through the air, placing them 18th in the country. Their ground attack has put up 165.8 yards per game, the 37th best total in the nation. As for points scored, Texas A&M has averaged 31.8 points per game, the 37th best total in the country. But who am I tuning in for? Les Miles, aka the mad hatter. . what shenanigans will he have up his sleeve? Based on statistics this thing seems pretty even. So we move on to the next factor, conferences. The SEC is always the trump card, and the Tigers should win even if Ian Hanford is under center.

10. SUGAR BOWL – 6. Ohio St. vs 8. Arkansas
If you enjoy watching sensational quarterbacks, I have a game for you. The orange bowl. But this one isn’t bad either. Terrelle Pryor and Ryan Mallet, two finalists for the Manning Award presented to the top QB in the nation. The players present a contrast in styles. While Mallett is a classic drop-back passer who helped Arkansas rack up 338.4 yards per game through the air -- third in the nation -- Pryor is a scrambler who gained 639 yards on the ground in addition to throwing for 2,551. These are two teams who looked to be getting stronger towards the end of the year, Arkansas winning their last 4, and Ohio State their last 6. Although the Razorbacks offense is playing out of their minds, if there is one defense from another conference with comparable team speed, it may just be the buckeyes. Look for Cameron Heyward to keep Mallett dancing in the pocket resulting in a few crucial turnovers, which Mallett had been ridiculed for early in the season. Should be a close one throughout, but I like Pryor to make the big play down the stretch. He’s 2-0 in BCS bowl games, including a rose bowl win victory last year vs. Oregon.

11. KRAFT FIGHT HUNGER BOWL – 15. Nevada vs. Boston College
This is not a misprint. Sure this is only on here because 1. It’s one of the cooler names of this bowl season, and 2. Because I needed to fill up twelve slots and realized I only had eleven. The most important reason it’s on here, it is the last meaningless yawn bowl of the season, a day before the real grand daddy of them all takes place, January 10th in Glendale. And on a somewhat related note, I must give Nevada some love, they did after all defeat my National Championship pick Boise St. If you want to see a versatile, intelligent quarterback not named Newton or Pryor tune in and watch the wolfpacks' Colin Kaepernick.

12. NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP – 1. Auburn vs 2. Oregon
And a partridge in a pear tree. Pick a story line, any story line . . you really can’t go wrong. Two of the fastest, most explosive, most well coached teams that we’ve seen in the decade. Cam Newton will run your grandma over like a reindeer. He is simply the best college football player I’ve ever seen, and absolutely deserved the Heisman trophy. Lamichael James put up video game like statistics, averaging 6 yards per carry and scampering for 21 touchdowns. The Tigers will attempt to give the SEC its 5th consecutive National Championship. The Ducks, will look to become a sports trivia question for the next 100 years, who took down the mighty Cam Newton in the national championship. Moreover, pitting the best of the Pac-10 versus the best of the SEC offers a very attractive and compelling matchup. SEC gets the most respect nationally for being dominant year in and year out, so why not see how the SEC does against the Pac-10 after beating up on the Big Ten and Big 12 in recent years? Oregon and Auburn represent a flashy, high-flying offensive showdown that the world is salivating to see. An x-factor in this matchup, Oregon QB Darron Thomas who was overshadowed this season because he obviously didn’t have to do all that much, will have to make some big plays down the stretch for his team. I don’t know if he is capable of doing it on this big of a stage, against a fast SEC defense that Thomas sees in his nightmares. On the other side of the rock . . Lights, Cameron, Action.

Merry Christmas to all, it’s Orange Blue and White.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Steelers Report Card, Week 15 edition

 Jets 22 Steelers 17. Matt Aaron hands out the grades.

This past Sunday, Steelers and Jets fans were treated to a holiday classic in flurry filled Heinz Field. It appeared that Ben Roethlisberger was well on his way to orchestrating his 24th game winning drive, but fell 10 yards short. Jets won their first ever game in the state of Pennsylvania and the Steelers now have lost to 4 playoff bound teams (Patriots, Ravens, Saints and Jets). Time to grade each element and see why the Steelers were not able to defend their own turf yet again (now 4-3 at home this year).

Ben Roethlisberger: C+

Frankly, he came up short. With that being said, in Ben Roethlisberger fashion, he gave his team a chance to win. Statistically, he only had a 78.2 passer rating, but that does not tell the whole story. He methodically led the offense down the field at the end of the first half for a successful field goal which was a gigantic 3 points heading into the locker room. He also maneuvered in the pocket beautifully throughout the game and it’s pleasant to hear all the naysayers keep quiet in terms of him holding onto the ball too long. 11-17 of 3rd downs is exceptionally impressive when most of those conversions were 8 yards or more.

A common theme the last few weeks is Big Ben missing Wallace on streak routes. Twice in the first half, #17 was open down the sideline and the timing is still not there. These plays potentially can put 6 on the board. If or when Ben and Wallace get on the same page again, with the deep route, this offense goes from struggling to put points on the board to being one of the best in the AFC. Yes, it will be that dramatic of a change.

The C+ grade also has a lot to do with the expectations of Roethlisberger. At this point of his career, it is almost expected that he finds a way to win no matter what.

Running Backs: B+

Rashard Mendenhall

The running game as whole averaged 5.9 yards per carry, led by Rashard who himself averaged 5.9 on 17 carries. The best part of his game was his ability to run through the tackles and also use his incredible patience to bounce it outside. He is the first running back to eclipse 100 yards on the Jets defense in 20 games. Mendenhall found paydirt as well on a rough and tough run from 2 yards out in the 3rd. The only negative to his game is the fact that he had minimal touches. Specifically in the first half, 8 carries is not enough. Coach Tomlin and company might be looking at the big picture and are attempting to limit his carries until the playoffs. If that is the case, 17 carries is plenty, even in a loss.

Mewelde Moore and Isaac Redman

What does Redman have to do to get a few more touches? He has 2 rushing attempts the last 2 weeks, against the Jets; his lone carry went for 7 notable yards. He continues to excel in the blocking scheme and not only does what he is told, but does it well. Give this boulder of a man the rock.

Moore could not gain any momentum on his 4 carries, but he is the best blocking back on this team. His ability to recognize the blitz will keep him on the field on third down and long situations.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: B-

Mike Wallace is also to blame for the lack of consistency on the deep ball. It appeared that Cromartie held Wallace on two deep balls, but honestly that does not matter. Wallace, being very Randy Moss like, gave up on both of those deep balls and immediately was looking for a flag. Play until the whistle or you will find yourself on the sideline playing cards with Randle El. He did have 7 catches on 10 looks (impressive 70% completion rate) and his overall route running continues to improve. He is currently the best wide receiver on this team, but it would be nice for him to play like he wants to be the best wide receiver in the game. His mindboggling speed is still ridiculous (You would think Cromartie would be faster chasing all those kids around).

This just in, Emmanual Sanders has hands. He pulled down a 29 yard catch on 3rd and 24. He worked the sideline brilliantly and had a few catches over the middle. There were two noticeable plays on the final drive in which Darrell Revis was one on one with Sanders. If that does not tell you something, than I do not know what will. A career high 7 catches is also a very nice sight.

Speaking of Revis, Hines Ward found himself on that island for much of the game. It’s not as fun as it sounds. What was most surprising is that Roethlisberger did not look or find Ward on the final drive, specifically the redzone throws.

Matt Speath certainly had a rollercoaster of a game. He dropped two passes early (still a common topic with this core), but then made a tremendous block in the backfield that enabled Roethlisberger to find Sanders along the sideline. He showed nice concentration on his touchdown reception. He also had an opportunity to catch the game winning touchdown pass…twice. Either one would have been a remarkable catch, but the opening was there. Lastly, why does it take Heath Miller to be injured for this offense to target the tight end position a total of 9 times? It simply does not make sense.

Offensive Line: C

Mendenhall had plenty of holes to choose from, that was the good news. Roethlisberger sacked three times and avoided many more disastrous plays by moving in the pocket was not. Flozel the Hotel committed, well a Flozel type personal foul, but he also missed a blitzing Jet late in the game on a 4 man rush. Also, did Jonathon Scott actually get hurt on that safety or did he just rupture his ego when Jason Taylor blew past him? The offensive line did not cost the Steelers the game, but the question will continue to flutter on whether this collage of a line will be able to hold up.

Defensive Line: D

The defensive line was pushed backwards and were flat out were muscled around. Ziggy Hood is improving, no doubt, but he D’brickashaw Ferguson had his way with him. Brett Keisel batted two of Sanchez’s passes to the grass, including one late in the game. The negative to that, is that Keisel could not get any penetration off the right side. The linebackers feed off the defensive line eating up offensive lineman and it did not happen. Tomlinson and Greene consistently fell forward as well, which is un-Steeler like.

Linebackers: D+

The Jets ran for 106 yards, the most by any opponent this season. Mark Sanchez is still running on that naked boot in which every single defender fell for. Only 1 sack is unacceptable. With Troy Polamalu out of the lineup, somebody had to make a splash play. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were relatively quite. When they did get into the backfield, Sanchez shook them off like he was the one with that reputation, not Roethlisberger. Tomlinson ran over Timmons like he stole something. This grade also plays into what is expected from 4 guys that supposedly make up the best linebacking core in the NFL.


Secondary: C+

You have to feel bad for Bryant McFadden. On many of those Brylan Edwards catches, McFadden was in excellent position, but Edwards wanted it more. He is obviously well coached, but struggles with lengthy wideouts. Ryan Mundy, Polamalu’s lineup replacement, did not play poorly. He was around the ball a lot and made a nice pass deflection late in the 4th, but he missed a huge sack on 3rd down on the Jets go-ahead field goal drive. Ryan Clark deserves a considerable amount of credit. He switched from free to strong safety and did not let the Jets make a huge play. Similar to the front 7, without Troy, somebody had to make a splash play and nobody even came close.

Special Teams: F, Fail, dismissed from school

The opening kickoff returned for 6 automatically puts the grade at a C or D. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the ST woes were much deeper than that. Brad Smith returned 2 other kicks past the 35 yard line and averaged an astonishing 46.7 yards on 3 attempts. On the contrary, Antonio Brown averaged 14.7 yards on 4 attempts. Anything under 20 is simply not acceptable. Jerricho Cotchery averaged a very healthy 16 yards on 2 put returns. When the Jets punt returner averages more yards than the Steelers’ kick returner, there are issues that need worked out. Jet’s punter Steve Weatherford pinned the Steelers inside the 20 yard line 3 times. Antonio Brown has impressed on his limited opportunities on the field, but Weatherford’s success also falls on Brown. If he calls for a fair catch inside the 10, then moves out of the way, he is not allowed to block a Jets defender. What he should have done, is not call for a fair catch, try to put the Jet’s gunner on their bottom and then run out of the way. That also falls on coaching.

Coaching: D

The Steelers punting from the 34 yard line in the first quarter did not make sense. Throwing the ball to the tight end when Miller is out of the game did not make sense. A draw play out of the shotgun, putting your QB and RB in the endzone late in the game definitely did not make sense. Especially when your guard is pulling which could potentially open up a whole for the end, and it did. Lack of pressure on a QB who has struggled lately did not make sense. The coaching staff had an overall bad game.

Overall C-

No need to panic. This was simply one game and based on multiple tie-breakers; the Steelers still clinched a playoff spot. If they handle their business from here on out, they will get the 2nd seed in the AFC. With Troy banged up and an outside chance of Aaron Smith returning, that bye week is absolutely crucial. Until next time, here we go Steelers!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Steelers get their grades after defeating the Ravens

Matt Aaron suffered a broken nose while grading the Steelers performance against the Ravens last Sunday night, but he managed to battle it out.

Sunday night, a game where the nose bleed section was behind center, where concussions were as common as touchdowns and a two team fight resulted in only a false start penalty. It must be a Steelers/Ravens game. Brutal and bloody does not begin to describe this AFC North clash, but in the end the Steelers hobbled out of M&T Bank Stadium victorious, by a score of 13-10.
Quarterback: B
Ben Roethlisberger, still heavily criticized in Pittsburgh, showed a lot of intestinal fortitude against the hungry Ravens’ defense. This morning at breakfast, he smelled the left side of his plate a lot easier than the right side, after having his nose adjusted by Haloti “The G is silent” Ngata. Roethlisberger could not get into a rhythm in the first half and it had a lot to with the weather conditions, lack of protection, broken bones and “the pistol” formation. With the extra elements that Ben had to deal with, he still missed many throws that he usually connects on. His timing with Wallace on the deep ball is still inconsistent and it cost the Steelers’ a touchdown. Even while squandering a few opportunities, he, of course, stepped it up in the second half and made exceptional plays to give his team a chance. It is truly remarkable how this Super Bowl winning quarterback continues to find ways to win. He is now 8-2 against the Ravens in his career.
(Roethlisberger breaking away from Terrell Suggs on the final drive and shoveling the ball out of bounds is currently Matt Aaron’s favorite play of the season)

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger broke his nose during a game against the Ravens. (Larry French/Getty Images)
Running Game: C-
Play calling must be addressed (Continue reading for more on that), but that does not excuse Rashard Mendenhall mindset and effectiveness against the Ravens. He is running behind a patchwork offensive line against THE best defensive lineman in the league, Ngata, and a top 3 unit. He has zero time to be patient and wait for the floodgates to open. He wasted numerous opportunities to gain 2-3 yards up the A gap, while trying to bounce it outside. Mendenhall needs to understand the defense he is playing against and a 2 yard gain is exponentially better than a 2 yard loss against the Ravens. He finished the day with 45 yards, but could have easily had 65-70 which would have made a huge difference. His lack of a run attack played a major role why the Steelers were 4-14 on 3rd down. His efforts did put him over the 1000 yard mark for the second consecutive season so the kid’s dedication to Tomlin’s approach is paying off.
Wide Receivers: C
Drop passes are becoming an all too familiar scene with the Steelers’ young core. Hines Ward certainly went to the sideline and told his mentees “Do as I say and not as I do,” as he had a ball bounce between the 8 and the 6. Emmanuel Sanders had two drops as well, but did finish with a career high 49 yards. When the quarterback is getting shattered and your offensive line is getting bullied, drop passes are almost as costly as turnovers. Mike Wallace was consistent, hauling in 5 catches on 7 targets. His route running continues to improve as he becomes an all around receiver. Now once that route running becomes constant on a game to game basis, Steel town will have one of the best wideouts in the league.
Offensive Line: C
 Flozell “The Hotel” Adams sprained his ankle in the 3rd quarter and for most of the day, Terrell Suggs sprained the spirits on the Steelers’ tackles. Roethlisberger faced habitual pressure, beginning with the opening drive. The injury to Heath Miller did not help the protection either as he has cemented his reputation as one of the best blocking tight ends. Maurkice Pouncey learned all about Ngata Sunday night, but this kid showed the coaching staff and the rest of the league that he has heart. He was the one in the middle of the extra-curricular pushing, he was the one jawing and he did not back down. Pouncey might have been humbled somewhat, but at the same time he got that much tougher. If Sam Bradford was not putting together a historic season for a rookie behind center, than Pouncey would be in the discussion for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Defensive Line: A
Brett Keisel returned and played well. Ziggy Hood had an early sack and he is really starting to turn heads with his increased role. The Ravens finished the day with 43 rushing yards and Ray Rice was virtually invisible. Casey Hampton and Nick Eason continue to clog up gaps and unselfishly swallow up double teams.
Linebackers: A+
A+’s are as rare as a Coach Tomlin smile, but this entity played nearly flawless. James Harrison needs a personal referee, not to call personal fouls ON him, but to call holding calls AGAINST him. It literally occurs on every drive. James Farrior’s new found youth continues to impress as he tallied another sack and a TFL. LaMarr Woodley’s box score does not come close to explaining the impact he had. Only 2 tackles, but his discipline and intelligence on stopping the Ravens reverse in the 2nd half needs to be in every linebacker training video. Of course, securing the lose fumble with less than 4 minutes left in the game was not too bad either.
Secondary: B-
Bryant McFadden went to the trainers after the game to ice his ego. He was torched more than a cigar with a questionable pass interference call for a little icing on the cake. Nightmarish thoughts of Aaron Rodgers pin pointing McFadden in last year’s playoffs when he was a member of the Arizona Cardinals. He will recover from this game. He is still head and shoulders (We’ll get to Troy in a second), above William Gay and will play well in Dick Lebeau’s zone defense down the stretch. Joe Flacco connected on two 60+ long passes on 3rd down which is unacceptable. Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark played well in the 2nd half and Flacco was not a huge factor.
Troy Polamalu deserves his own paragraph. His magical, opportune timing on his forced turnover was vintage Troy. A lot of credit must be given to James Harrison for his inside move opening the lane for Polamalu. Don’t forget that he reached Flacco, sacked and forced the fumble ON a 3 STEP DROP. Questions of him losing some speed need to be packed away with your summer clothes.

Al Bello/Getty Images
Coaching: C-
Bruce Arians needs to reevaluate and be reevaluated. 1st and goal inside the 5 and you go to an inside handoff. Bad call. 2nd and goal inside the 3 and you go to Mendenhall without a fullback. Bad call. Running the ball out of “the pistol” when the running back literally starts 8-9 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Bad call. The middle of the field was infrequently used and 3rd down play calling was atrocious. Fortunately, the Ravens struggled in similar regards.
Dick LeBeau got too creative early when Anquan Bolden broke free on a 3rd down and long inside the Ravens’ 5. Bolden in the slot, one on one with Clark, is a mindboggling mismatch. He made the adjustments in the 2nd half and let his playmakers do the work. Dialing up a blitz with Polamalu shooting off the edge with Harrison on his inside was executed to perfection.

Final Grade B-
The injuries are piling up (Only if Sepulveda’s bones in his legs were as big as his biceps), the penalties are still frequent and the defense does breakdown occasionally. But the Steelers went into a hostile environment and defeated an animalistic, bruising team. They now control their own destiny for a playoff bye with three straight games at home.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

LeBron plays the ultimate villian, returns to Cleveland tonight

Make the right decision and witness LeBron James’ return to Cleveland. Matt Aaron certainly is.
        The King returns to Quicken Loans Arena tonight for the first time as a visitor and to say he is walking into a hostile environment would be the understatement of the year. What kind of reception and reaction should the Cleveland faithful give their former hero? Well, James embarrassed the entire city on national television without communicating with a person in the Cavilers’ office. He took his “talents” to South Beach to join forces with two other All-Stars. He left his hometown city after promising Cleveland that he would bring them a championship. He danced all night at the Heat’s welcoming party and again looked egotistical on his latest Nike advertisement. So should they shower LeBron with boos?
        The twitter campaign asking fans to laugh at The Chosen One sounds like a much better idea. Booing James only shows him that you still care and quite frankly, miss him. Do not play into his ego that is still as inflated as Chris Bosh’s career numbers. LeQuit James (Popular nickname in Cleveland these days) and his talents have led the Heat to a substandard 11-8 start. The team is not in sync and unless they are playing below average teams, Miami looks overmatched and undermanned. The crowd should get loud, orchestrate creative chants, chuckle and be thunderous, but do not boo James. Hell, he gets booed everywhere he goes.
        Tonight will be as interesting as Roger Clemens returning to Boston, Brett Favre being an opponent in Lambeau Field and Michael Vick flying in as an Eagle to the Georgia Dome.
        LeBron has stated that his return will be emotional and Mo Williams referred to his return “almost like your ex-girlfriend coming to your wedding.” They will be animated and energized to defend THEIR home court against their former King.

      It is must-see television, specifically to see (and hear) the reactions from the crowd. Tonight should also feature a compelling game on the court as the Cavs have held their own, 7-10 record, without James. They also provide difficult matchups for the Big 3 and friends. Mo Williams is the best point guard on the court and the Cavs frontline triumphs over the Heat’s big guys. James has led the Heat to two consecutive wins over the Wizards and Pistons and will try to make it three straight tonight.
       Unfortunately, if you follow Cleveland sports, you will know how tonight and the season will play out. This city has felt devastating loses such as “The Drive”, shot over Ehlo and even the Browns being moved to Baltimore. There is no doubt that LeBron will get the last laugh. It might be tonight or it might be when he eventually hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy. It will happen, because that is simply the way things work when it comes to sports in Cleveland.