Saturday, January 31, 2009

SB43 Preview

Who knew two weeks could take so long? Doesn't it feel like the AFC Championship was about 2 months ago? Maybe I just place a bit too much importance on the Steelers, but I've been a nervous wreck for two weeks now and its kinda weird to think that, no matter what happens in roughly 24 hours, that anxiety will be completely gone, replaced either with euphoria or fury. Anyway, here's my personal breakdown of this puppy, complete with some minor game predictions at the end.

Steelers Offense vs. Cardinals DefenseExpect the Steelers to start the game doing what they always do: Work hard to establish their running game. It's pretty tough to really guess as to how effectively this philosophy will work against the enigmatic Cardinals D. Many thought they'd have success running against the Chargers' mediocre bunch (and they did), and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion they would struggle mightily against the Ravens stingy D (and they did). But the Cards are a different animal altogether. They were susceptible to giving up big rushing totals at numerous different points in the season. The gave up 183 yards to the Patriots, 239 to the Vikings, and 185 to the Eagles, as well as allowing 4 other games with over 100 yards rushing. For that reason I'm sure the Steelers will work at the rushing game early to try and take advantage of a Cards D that I'm sure they still think is susceptible despite the last few games that indicate otherwise.

For their part, the Cards D-Line, as well as their very good linebacking corps, have really turned things around after spending much of the season resembling those old Indy Colts teams that had the dynamic O no D identity. Guys like Darnell Dockett, Antonio Smith, and Bertrand Berry have really turned around the team's season on the front lines and figure to be a very tough matchup for the much-maligned Steelers O-Line if their productive play continues.

In the passing game, there are a few potential X Factors. Hines Ward is the big question mark right now. I think we've all seen just how impotent the Steelers offense can get when Ward is out of the lineup, and that was certainly the case two weeks ago. Due to the injury, I definitely don't expect much in the way of stats posted by Ward, as I think we'll see him mainly as a decoy and on short routes. I'd venture something like 3 or 4 catches for 20-30 yards. Nothing too spectacular certainly, and he won't be adding a second MVP to his trophy case. With Ward likely being somewhat ineffective I think Santonio and Heath figure to be the ones to benefit the most. Santonio is my personal darkhorse pick for MVP. I think he gets 100 yards receiving and a TD and Heath may fill the role that Ward typically fills on third downs, at least somewhat. I've heard talk about Nate Washington, but I'm still no tremendous fan of his work, and while I think he is effective enough, I can't imagine him getting more than 1 or 2 catches and don't think he'll be able to bring in any long passes against the Cards' secondary, though he has become strangely good at drawing PI penalties.

Cardinals Offense vs. Steelers DefenseNow THIS is the matchup that everyone is fired up about. The Steelers' vaunted D is one more dominant performance away from gaining serious consideration as one of the best defenses in recent memory. The Cardinals offense has as much talent at the skill positions as any team in football and are just hitting their stride. They are of course led by the most dominant offensive player in football in the great Larry Fitzgerald. In case you've spent most of the past two weeks in some sort of a drunken stupor, the Steelers ability to handle Fitz and keep him in check has been one of the major subplots of the Super Bowl. The Cards also boast not one but two other 1,000 yard receivers from this season in the controversial Anquan Boldin and the underrated Steve Breaston. Its a safe bet that Ike Taylor will spend most of his night matched up with Fitz, and it remains to be seen how often the Steelers deploy their excellent safeties to double Fitz. But they can't sleep on Boldin, though, as there have been times in the past couple seasons when it was debatable who was the best receiver on Zona, and the talent in Boldin is still very much there despite Fitz's overshadowing of him.

The passing game for the Cards also will have another dynamic: The Steelers pass rush. NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and his counterpart LaMarr Woodley figure to get a ton of chances to rush Warner and how well the Cards hold block Harrison and Woodley will be a big factor in determining this game's outcome. As always, Dick LeBeau figures to bring the blitz from every conceivable angle and Kurt Warner's wisdom and skill will be an interesting match for LeBeau and company.

The Cardinals rush attack has at least partially developed over the past few games. However, the Steelers incredibly stout rush defense gives them the biggest advantage in this game. James Farrior and the other aforementioned linebackers team up with Troy Polamalu and the tough D-Line to stuff pretty much every rushing attack they've faced all season, many of which are much better than this Cards roster.

Final Predictions:
And now I will put my best sooth-saying effort forward and attempt to divine some things about tomorrow's game. Note that almost all of these things will probably be horribly, terribly wrong.

-Santonio Holmes goes over 100 yards and scores on a long TD pass from Big Ben.
-Ben also throws a TD toss to Heath Miller.
-The Cards keep it very close for much of the game on the backs of Warner, Fitzgerald, and Boldin. Boldin especially has a surprisingly big game for the Cards.
-The Steelers get to Warner several times but have very few sacks to show for it by game's end. However, the constant pressure does force him to get rid of the ball and prevents any killer deep balls to Fitzgerald.
-The Steelers win 24-17.
-Ben Roethlisberger wins Super Bowl MVP honors and throws for something like 240 yards.

Pitt Beats Down The Irish

Notre Dame came out firing against Pitt today and gave us a nerve-wracking start that saw the Irish nailing treys like they had Chris Quinn back in the lineup. Thankfully, the Panthers came out blazing hot and ruggedly tough in the second half and bowled over, around, and through the hated Notre Dame Fighting Irish en route to a 93-80 W. It was one hell of a way to rebound from the disappointing loss earlier this week to Villanova.

The key for Pitt was DeJuan Blair. The guy spent the better part of the afternoon drinking Luke Harangody's milkshake. I walked away from this game very unimpressed with the highly touted Harangody. The Grizzly Blair had a 10/18 shooting day with 23 points and a ridiculous 22 boards including an absolutely unheard off 11 offensive boards. Harangody just couldn't bang with the infinitely more physical Blair. Most of Gody's gaudy 27 points came in garbage time when the Panthers had the game in hand.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the stupendous work of Levance Fields and Ashton Gibbs. On a day when Sam I Am could get anything going offensively or defensively, Fieldsy and Gibbs were absolute money. Gibbs had 13 points in 17 minutes, 11 of them coming in the first half as he was really the biggest reason that Pitt was able to stay close to the Irish early on. Guy was crazy good.Fields did the usual floor general stuff, 7 helpers and 0 turnovers. Ridiculous. He also poured in a very effective and very efficient 17 points and a pair of treys.

I also can't believe I made it through this much of the article without mentioning Jermaine Dixon. The guy is so good on defense I think Dick LeBeau might sign him away this off-season. He also drained all three treys he took en route to 16 points.

Like I said, this game a freaking beatdown in the second half. The Irish's fantastic start was spurred by out-of-this-world shooting, mainly by role player Luke Zeller who was averaging a whopping 6 points per game. Zeller had 18 first half points, all on treys, but predictably disappeared. And when it came time for the real basketball players to take over, it was all P-I-T-T.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Late Night Steeler Links

This is likely my last edition of SB43 links. But its Thursday Night/ Friday morning and its roughly 1 degree outside and since I'm not the least bit tired and am basically just killing time until Burn Notice comes on at 1 AM, I thought I'd piece together a few of the countless interesting stories/ links hanging around the web right now.

The Sports Guy is stopping by Friday for one of his delightful yet very rare marathon chats. The over/under is about 3.5 hours. I'm leaning towards the under.

James Farrior is in touch with the Trib on a daily basis for a little diary action.

There are rumors circulating all over the place that our beloved Large Benjamin had some X-Rays on his ribs and that he may be more hurt than he or the team have been letting on. However, Peter King is saying that, even if Ben has a little bit of the ouchies he still looks damned good. In typical King fashion, he also puts together 10 things he thinks he might think about thinking. Or something like that.

Some random news stories: Tomlin's the Coach of the Year, Heinz Field is still the worst, and Dick LeBeau is coming back.

I'm not entirely sure how I should feel about this yet, but the Super Bowl has gone Twitter. For the life of me, I'm not sure I'll ever really figure out the appeal of Twitter. I mean, giving constant updates on what's happening in your life? I guess I can see it for events like the Super Bowl (though it'd be infinitely better if someone like Deadspin had a Twitter account at the Super Bowl and could say whatever they want...but I guess they'd just do that on their blog if they wanted to...all this internet stuff just criss-crosses with each other) Like I alluded to, the NFL is sponsoring the Twitter account, so its mostly the standard company line, promoting the Super Bowl stuff. A bit of a Yawner, but if you really want detail on today's Radio Row and stuff like that, this is certainly the spot for you.

The leader of the free world is pulling for our beloved Steelers.

Does this mean the Secret Service will let us borrow their ultra-super-secret spy stuff to gain an advantage in SB43? I mean it's not like this would be the first time such equipment has been used, right Mr. Belichick?
Sorry to any Boston fans, I just absolutely positively could not resist. It's in my DNA.

Joe Posnanski, who I have previously mentioned as being in my mind the top sportswriter in America and a guy I have a bit of a man-crush on, does a very good job capturing the Steeler essence in this column. I have been meaning to link to this for so long that he actually put up a follow up post on his personal blog because of the Burgh attention he's gotten for it. This post actually kinda jarred me. I mean it's definitely a very good column and all, but people crying over it? Uhmm...I can't see it. Maybe I just have no soul. Not sure.

If you are a fan of the spectacular D.J. Gallo, then you simply must be checking out his daily blogs from about SB43. Gallo also looks at some Steeler bars around the world. And if you aren't a fan of D.J. Gallo, well then I'm not sure we can be friends. In fact, if you aren't down with D.J., kindly hit the olllld back button on your browser and return to whatever page you came from.

As much as I love the fine folks at Holy Taco, don't they know that Steeler fans are already second on the NFL's ranking of fat fan bases? I mean we'll never catch Green Bay, that'd be like someone catching the Canadiens in Stanley Cup titles, but good lord this Super Bowl snack item they are pimping out nearly gave me a heart attack just from looking at it. If there are any dramatic moments in the game, we're going to have a few hundred cases like this one because of this artery-destroyer. This is going to be on your conscience Holy Taco.

Bill Belichick and a few other NFL coaches give some scouting insight on the game. Worth a quick read.

For our final Steeler link, here is some very irritating news that is circulating only in rumor form for now: That there may NOT be a parade if the Steelers win the Super Bowl. There might only be a celebration. Uhmm... what the hell? Are Dan Onorato and Luke Ravenstahl and whoever else new to the city? Are they not aware of how seriously we take our Steelers and how much we revere and worship them? A "celebration" or whatever the hell else ain't going to cut it. Especially because it would mean that everyone who wants to celebrate will have to congregate in the same area. Where in Pittsburgh do you suggest that can happen unless they are going to be lame and hold at Heinz Field or something and have it be completely impersonal and dull. The beauty of the parade is that it spreads people out like crazy so that everyone isn't piled into one big mess of people. Granted there is always a stopping point where people congregate but not everyone goes there. Trust me, Pittsburgh leaders, have the damn parade. If finances are a little tight, how 'bout Mayor Steelerstahl covers the cost with some of his excess campaign funds being that he has enough cash to bring him and his peeps to the game.
And then some Non-Steeler stuff too, because after all there are a few other teams in this town, though you wouldn't know it by looking at the Post-Gazette and Trib's sports pages:

The Pensblog takes Dan Potash to task for a...uhmm... suggestive question. Nothing gets by the Pensblog, and a good Potash bashing is always A-Ok by me.

Neal Huntington waited until he was absolutely, positively certain that no one in the entire city was paying attention to him...and then he makes not one but two competent moves (more than he'd made all offseason mind you) in the same day. This sucker probably could've had better timing, but signing Paul Maholm to a 3 year extension is a smart move even though I think he ends up a 3 or 4 starter. The Eric Hinske deal ain't exactly a franchise-altering signing, but its smart and gives us an excellent bench piece. It also signifies the end of the Dirty Doug Mientkiewicz Era in the Burgh. Whatever. Doug was a good clubhouse guy and I'm sure the crazies at the PBC Blog are storming PNC Park with pitchforks and torches, but Hinske's the far superior option to Doug in my mind. I already touched on this previously.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

5 Key Matchups for SB43

1. Larry Fitzgerald vs. The Steelers Secondary
Above all else, Fitzgerald is the reason that the Cardinals are in the Super Bowl this season. He has been basically unstoppable as he torched defense after defense during the playoffs. If the Cards are going to win this game it will be because of Larry's incredible abilities. So naturally, he is priority numero uno for the Steelers spectacular defense. I expect to see a fair amount of Ike Taylor going against Fitz, but even with the Steelers top corner shadowing Larry, I still think we'll see double coverage for much of the day. Also, the Steelers often go to something of a zone when they blitz heavy, as most teams do, but against Fitz, we've seen all postseason you absolutely, positively cannot go zone. It will be interesting to see how Dick LeBeau plays against this unbelievable talent.

2. Ben Roethlisberger vs. The Cardinals Pass Rush
The Cards defense has really stepped up their game the past few weeks. Because of this, Big Ben is going to need to play mistake-free ball and neutralize their superb playmakers. Roethlisberger has been excellent at that for the past several games, but every Steeler fan has seen how nasty things can get when Ben starts struggling and trying to do too much. Roethlisberger is one of the most unique QB's in football and his way of fending off blitzers and keeping plays alive can alter games in both extremely positive and negative ways. Its probably a pretty fair bet that we will see at least instance of each in this game. Just how positive and negative those plays are will go a long toward determining this puppy.

3. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. The Cardinals O-Line

One of these days the refs may start calling more of the dozens of holdings of James Harrison that occur every single freaking game. It's absolutely insane the way he is blatantly held, and with the Cardinals mediocre tackles I expect that trend to continue, and if we even get one holding call our way I will be pleased. Even with the holding and the double teams Harrison often seems to rise to the occasion and there is certainly no bigger occasion that this one. I have a hard time imagining him not producing at least a couple big time plays.

4. Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin vs. Ken Whisenhunt and Todd Haley
This is sort of a poetic type matchup. Tomlin, of course, is a defensive coach and the best coach on his staff is the defensive coordinator. Whiz, as we all know, is an offensive master and his top lieutenant is the very promising Haley. And not coincidentally, these are the top units for the respective squads. As we always saw in the Burgh, Whiz loves to throw out trick plays in big games, and I fully expect to see something crazy in this game. How LeBeau and company handle any gadgers will be a key to success for both squads. And all this is even without discussing the incredibly intimate knowledge that Whiz and LeBeau have of each other's schemes. It's safe to say that's going to be a huge factor, too.

5. Kurt Warner vs. Troy Polamalu
On one side we have one of the most experienced, most intelligent, and right now, one of the best quarterbacks in football. On the other hand there is the most disruptive defender in football who doubles as quite possibly the single most athletic player in the league as well. Should be a truly fascinating matchup. Warner is one of the few QB's who might (and I stress might) be able to neutralize or maybe even take advantage of Polamalu's play. I certainly don't think that Troy will be able to wreak havoc all day long, but the key will be whether or not he's able to make a few monster plays (like the INT or the 4th down line jump against Baltimore) that alter this game.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pens Win, Panthers Lose

"I say we go 1-1 tonight; Don't ask me for any further prediction that that."
Those were my words about 6 hours ago (4:45 PM tonight if you stumble upon this later) after a friend asked for my prediction for tonight's Pitt and Pens games as we impatiently waited for our interminable class to finally come to an end.

Turns out I was right after all, and yet I'm still quite disappointed by the result.

The number 3 ranked Panthers were plagued by foul trouble and poor shooting all night long against the always scrappy Villanova Wildcats. Sam Young led the team with 14 points, but struggled with his shot going just 6/15 from the field and missing 3 treys. And he was one of the more successful shooters. Tyrell Biggs put up the old goose egg and DeJuan Blair had just 7 points. They both spent a lot of time in foul trouble. Levance Fields was 4/11 shooting and a miserable 1/5 on treys.

The lone bright offensive spot for was Brad Wanamaker's 13 points on 6/7 shooting. His work as a super-sub continues to impress at times. The Pitt D also did a solid job of keeping Villanova at least somewhat in check, enough to keep the Panthers in the game despite a pathetic night offensively. Don't let the 10 point deficit throw you, this was a very, very close ball game almost all night long.

The Pens managed to salvage the evening with an excellent 6-2 win over the division-leading New York Rangers. This was a big way to start off the second half of the season. The Pens know that they can't afford any more prolonged slumps and coming out of the gate firing could be the boost this team needs to develop into the squad we all know they can be.

The Flower was tremendous in net. He survived a heavy barrage of shots in the early going and kept the Pens in it long enough for the offense to come to life in a lively third period.

Kris Letang had a monster night. Coming into the game he had just 1 goal in the entire first half of the season. After the game? He now has 3. 2 goals for a stud young D-man. Let's hope this is a sign of things to come for Letang, who is a tremendous talent but has had some inconsistencies in both the offensive and defensive portions of his game.

Petr Sykora chipped in a pair of goals himself. His consistent scoring touch has been important to the Pens all season and if he can step his game up a tad more the rest of the way it'd be another big shift for the Pens O.

Sid the Kid also had a big old night after some serious uncertainty arose this morning about whether or not he'd even be in lineup: 1 Goal and 2 Assists and he was making a number of plays up and down the ice all night. These is the playmaking skills we NEED to see out of the Kid if we're going to make this second-half charge.

Speaking of a second half charge, the Pens, for now anyway, are tied with the Panthers for the 8th and final playoff spot with 52 points. Unfortunately we've played two more games than the Panthers so they have the edge. For now. We did leapfrog the Canes though, who have played 49 games, same as us.

Lastly I thought I'd try to gauge what the Pens figure to need to get into the postseason. Since the end of the lockout and the end of ties, its taken at least 92 points to get into the East Playoffs each year, and it took 94 one year. In looking at the standings now, that number is more like 90 or 91. We are at 52 and at that pace would finish with 87. So while our pace isn't what we want it to be, 39 or 40 points in 33 games is more than doable given this lineup, especially if we keep playing like this.

Wednesday Links From Around the Confluence

Some very good links floating about:
-The Sports Guy breaks down the Super Bowl on the B.S. Report with his usual entourage of NFL experts plus Cousin Sal. I'd be just fine if he took Sal out of that equation and just had Schatz and Lombardi on, but whatever. It's quite long, but if you have a shade over an hour to kill, I'd recommend it. UPDATE: Better yet, if you have one second under an hour, check out the just posted BS Report with Pittsburgh Steeler fan Dave Dameshek.

-Speaking of Lombardi, he puts together a 5 Things Each Team Must Do to win little ditty. As always, it's the usual superb stuff from Lombardi.

-ESPN is putting together another all day chat on the Super Bowl with roughly 1,000 different guests making appearances. Much like the B.S. Report, if you have a spare hour to kill to read all the different crap, it's worth it.

-ESPN writer David Fleming has oddly been around for much of the Steelers last decade-and-a-half run of excellence. He re-hashes quite a few uncomfortable and irritating moments, but it is a definitely cool walk down memory lane if you are up for it.

-If you feel like wetting yourself from laughing, the Pensblog has an epic feature on ways to turn the team's season around. The Sidney Crosby/ The Rock comparisons are simply amazing.

-Joe Posnanski, possibly the best sportswriter in America, takes The Boss to task for playing the Super Bowl Halftime Show. It's never a dull topic when Pos is writing about it.

-Pitt football got another verbal commitment this morning in 3-star Shane Gordon. Gordon is a 3-star guy that is a middle linebacker much like recent commit Dan Mason. This just about rounds out the Pitt class. There will probably be one or two more commits, but nothing worth getting all fired up over. There are plenty of 3 stars and some 4 stars in this class, but we haven't seen any Shayne Hale, Jonathan Baldwin, Shady McCoy types in this class. Kind of surprising being that this is our most successful Pitt team under Wanny yet. Not sure what the reasoning for this would be.

-The Pirates are very actively pursuing Eric Hinske. This is certainly better than the reports that came slightly earlier in the day about the team going after Luis Gonzalez. I like Hinske as a backup outfielder/ corner infielder. Here's his baseball reference page. This would put to rest the Doug Mientkiewicz drama, I would assume. And although I know Mientkiewicz makes certain Pirate fans swoon at the very mention of his name, or his grit, or his clubhouse leadership, I think Hinske is a much better pickup for this roster than Dirty Doug. Hinske has serious pop in his bat, and while the Pirates don't want him anyway near everyday duty, the jury is still very much out on the likes of Andy LaRoche and Nyjer Morgan and who knows what to expect from Brandon Moss. He apparently took the whole Pirate thing a little too seriously being that he's going to be hobbling around on a peg leg in the outfield.

-A fascinating list of the Top 60 Plays in Pittsburgh sports history. Obviously its incredibly debatable the order but its hard to argue with a lot of it, as there are so many incredible plays that this town has witnessed over the years. A couple quick qualms, though: Lynn Swann's juggling catch against the Cowboys in Super Bowl X should be higher than 23. I've long thought it might be the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Personally I'd rank it third on that list. Also, how is Norm Johnson's onside Super Bowl Kick really 33rd? I mean, come on, I remember everything about that play and I don't think it would crack my top 100. There's not as much emphasis on spectacular plays so much as there is on context of the plays. Troy Polamalu's unbelievable pick earlier this year against San Diego doesn't make the list but a double play in the 90 NLCS, Dave Parker's outfield assists in the All-Star Game, and a few important but not game-altering picks in the Super Bowls do make it. But in all honesty, a very, very good job by Dameshek here.

-Lastly, a very good piece by ESPN's Dana O'Neill on the REAL Mayor of Pittsburgh, DeJuan Blair. I don't think there's any question which youngster would win if Pitt's big man ran against Luke Steelerstahl Ravenstahl.

SB 43: My MVP Odds

No, these aren't the Vegas odds for the Super Bowl MVP, these are my own personal odds. I broke it down by team.

If the Cardinals Win
Kurt Warner 35%
Larry Fitzgerald 25%
Anquan Boldin 10%
Steve Breaston 9%
Edgerrin James 6%
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 6%
Karlos Dansby 3%
Adrian Wilson 2%
Tim Hightower 2%
Roderick Hood 1%
Anybody Else 1%
My Explanation: Many might expect Fitz to be the favorite here, but unless he makes just absolutely sick catches (a distinct possibility) any stats that Fitz gets will reflect just as positively on Warner. Anquan Boldin, with two weeks to heal, figures to be a likely player to have a big game with so much to prove, but he's been a definite distraction and that will hurt him. He has the same issue that Fitz has in that Warner will accumulate any stats that Boldin has, too. And people like Warner a lot more than Boldin, the same can't be said as a negative against Fitz. My real dark horse is Steve Breaston. The Steelers kick and punt coverage teams are decent but are nothing spectacular and could be vulnerable to a dangerous player like Breaston. He's definitely capable of a Desmond Howard type of performance, which scares the daylights out of me. Between Edge James and Tim Hightower either one could rush in a TD or two each if things break in their particular direction, and while I don't see how either one goes for many yards, 2 TDs from a yard or two out could be enough to sway some votes. The Arizona defense has been terrific at making plays this postseason, especially their secondary, and any one of them could certainly step up and have a big day.

If the Steelers Win:
Ben Roethlisberger 25%
Hines Ward 20%
Willie Parker 15%
Troy Polamalu 12%
James Harrison 10%
Santonio Holmes 8%
Ike Taylor 3%
Nate Washington 3%
LaMarr Woodley 2%
James Farrior 1%
Anyone else 1%
My Explanation: Roethlisberger has to be the odds-on favorite here. He has played well this post-season in taking care of the ball and making the necessary plays. And we all know that the QB always gets more credit or blame for his team's performance. If Roethlisberger struggles then Hines becomes the next logical pick. He has the courageously-fighting-through-an-injury angle going for him and a TD or two, 100 yards again, and some vicious blocking will gain him serious consideration. The Zona defense, despite a renaissance these past few games, is still potentially vulnerable, and would anyone really be that surprised to see Willie go off on them for 100+ yards? I know I wouldn't. The team's two dynamic defenders, Polamalu and Harrison, should be treated as being pretty close to equal. Polamalu gets a slight edge because of his ability to get in the end zone if he can get his hands on the ball. However, no one is going to bat an eyelash if Harrison sacks Warner 2 or more times and forces a fumble or two that shifts the game. The guy is just unbelievably ferocious and I can't picture him having a big game. Santonio is the Steve Breaston of the Steelers. He could easily house another punt return, or at least have a big return, and is the most likely person on the team to catch a long TD or long pass anyway. Nate gets mention because he figures to at least get 1 or 2 deep balls tossed his way, and LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior are lurking as ultra-dark horse figures here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Positional Breakdowns for SB43

Kurt Warner vs. Ben Roethlisberger
This is one of the more interesting matchups of the game in my opinion. Warner's come back for like the millionth time. The guy may technically be older, but he doesn't have the typical mileage of a 37 year old QB. Meanwhile, Big Ben has (at least in my mind) taken over the mantle of the best QB under age 30 this season. You can argue for others, sure, but really it all comes down to the W's, and if Big Ben wins this one, I don't see how you can even make an argument for anyone else.
The Edge: Steelers

Starting Running Back
Willie Parker vs. Edgerrin James
Fast Willie had a dynamo game against the Chargers but was predictably held in check against the Baltimore Birdies. This will be an interesting game for him because the Cards were gouged at times this year but they have been crazy good the last few games. Edge James may be playing better in the postseason than he has since he left Peyton Manning's side, but he hasn't played a defense with teeth like the Steelers.
The Edge: Steelers

Backup Running Backs/ Fullbacks
Carey Davis, Mewelde Moore, and Gary Russell vs. Tim Hightower, Terrelle Smith, and J.J. Arrington
Mewelde put in some workmanlike efforts this season in spelling the injured/ineffective Parker but hasn't been given much to do offensively in the postseason. I'd say J.J. Arrington has been kind of similarly doesn't touch the ball much and likely won't play a role in the game. Carey Davis is a solid enough blocker when he gets the chance but don't ask him to do much with the ball. Terrelle Smith is the same way. Tim Hightower is the deciding factor for the Cards here. Gary Russell may have developed a so-so nose for the goal line, but Hightower has turned into a pretty effective player for Zona.
The Edge: Cardinals

Wide Receiving Corps
Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington, and Limas Sweed vs. Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston, and Jerheme Urban
I think you probably have a pretty good idea where this one is going. Fitz has developed into without doubt the best receiver in football, and may even be the best offensive player now, too. Boldin has had his issues of late, but with two weeks to ready himself for the biggest game of his career, it's safe to say he'll be ready and focused. Breaston had a breakout year for the Cards, too and is probably the best third receiver in football, and Urban is a dangerous 4th option. The Steelers corps is effective but can't match up with that excellence. Ward is a gritty player and Holmes is developing into a playmaker anytime he touches the ball. Washington will still drive you absolutely insane with his inconsistencies but has still become a legit downfield threat. I don't even want to talk about Sweed...
The Edge:

Tight End
Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth vs. Leonard Pope and Ben Patrick
Heath Miller may be one of the most underappreciated tight ends in football. I'd love to see him get more attention in the passing game, but you can't underestimate his mad blocking skills, either. Don't forget the monstrous Matt Spaeth, either. The Cards mostly ignore their tight ends with just 3 completions their way in 3 playoff games.
The Edge: Steelers

Offensive Tackle
Willie Colon and Max Starks vs. Mike Gandy and Levi Brown
Why aren't more people talking about Max Starks right now? The guy may not be a latter day Orlando Pace or anything, but he has been damned good on the left side of the line since Marvel Smith was put out to pasture and I think has been the best player on the line for some time now. Unfortunately, he is bookended by Willie Colon. I'm not saying Colon will never be a good O-lineman, as I think he could still be a halfway decent guard, but he is, at his very best, a mediocre tackle. The Cards linemen have been steady if not spectacular for them. Levi Brown has turned into a pretty good player and Mike Gandy has been okay. This was a tough one to decide in the end, though, as I think Starks has been better than both Cardinals though.
The Edge: Push

Interior Offensive Line
Chris Kemoeautu, Justin Hartwig, and Darnell Stapleton vs. Reggie Wells, Lyle Sendlein, and Deuce Lutui
Darnell Stapleton has no business starting in a Super Bowl, and he terrifies the living hell out of me on every snap. Hartwig has been average at center, but isn't doing much to further the legacy of Steelers centers. Kemoeautu has been a disappointment, as I thought he was going to be a breakout player this season. For Zona, Reggie Wells and Deuce Lutui both turned in good seasons and are steady linemen.
The Edge: Cardinals

Defensive Ends
Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, and Travis Kirschke vs. Antonio Smith, Travis LaBoy, and Bertrand Berry
It gets a little tougher to compare the linebacker and D-Line positions because of the different schemes, but we'll plow ahead anyway. The Cardinals ends may play in a 4-3, but no one really expects them to generate a ton of heat on the QB. Berry is a solid pass rush specialist, but with LaBoy injured he figures to get more snaps than he should and could be exploited. The Steelers have one of the most underrated ends in football in Aaron Smith. Despite being in the 3-4, Smith registered 5.5 sacks, a number which would have led the Cardinals entire team. And to the fact that he and Keisel are spectacular run stoppers and this one's no contest.
The Edge Steelers

Defensive Tackles
Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke vs. Darnell Dockett, Bryan Robinson, and Calais Campbell
Again, the comparisons are a bit tough here. Dockett has had a very, very good postseason and Robinson and Campbell have played well also. AFter watching a few games in person this season, my opinion of Casey Hampton has gone way down after watching him barely make it to the sidelines. Literally I don't think the guy can run 5 yards. His role as a gap-stuffer is a bit overrated in my mind.
The Edge Cardinals

Outside Linebackers
James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. Chike Okeafor and Karlos Dansby
Against most teams the Cards stack up pretty well at OLB. Dansby is a very good young linebacker and may even be a slightly better all-around player than Woodley. However, the Steelers have a force of nature in James Harrison opposite Woodley.
The Edge Steelers

Inside Linebackers
James Farrior, Larry Foote, and Lawrence Timmons vs. Gerald Hayes
Farrior had a renaissance season, and is probably a hair better than Gerald Hayes, a young emerging tackle machine for the Cards. The Steelers other weapon here, and I'm talking about Timmons not the badly aging Foote, makes the difference for the Steelers. Timmons can cover anyone on the Cards roster except Fitz and can also bring the pressure up the middle like few others can.
The Edge Steelers

Starting Cornerbacks
Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Roderick Hood
It's arguable who really starts opposite Taylor as it seems like Deshea and Bryant pretty much play the same amount. Anyway, Taylor is having a great season and it will be fascinating watching him match against Fitzgerald. However, Rodgers-Cromartie has turned into a fantastic ball hawk and Roderick Hood has been equally good as a cover man. These two make me quite nervous.
The Edge: Cardinals

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark vs. Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson
Again, the Cards would have an edge against a lot of teams, but not the Steelers. Rolle is a very good young safety and Wilson is one of the better all-around strong safeties in the NFL. Unfortunately, they are being compared to the best strong safety and one of the 3 or 4 best free safetys in all of football here. Polamalu and Clark are perfect complements and will give the Cardinals fantastic passing game a real challenge.
The Edge: Steelers

Other Defensive Backs
William Gay and Deshea Townsend vs. Aaron Francisco and Ralph Brown
I felt this needed to be included because we are likely to see a fair amount of nickel and dime packages in this game. And this is a spot where I think the Steelers have a big edge which could play a definite role in at least containing the Cards passing game. Townsend is a long-time starter who now has lost a lot of snaps to Bryant McFadden, but he is still a tremendous football player. William Gay showed a ton of promise I think this season, and figures to be given a shot to play for a starting job sometime in the future. Francisco and Brown are nice enough players, but they don't compare.
The Edge: Steelers

Kicker/ Punter
Jeff Reed and Mitch Berger vs. Neil Rackers and Ben Graham
This one gave me some problems deciding. Neither punter is really any good. Berger has been better this season than he's been given credit for and has outperformed Graham on most statistical levels. Still, he's Mitch Berger and is never too far away from shanking a 25 yard punt. Jeff Reed may be a very good cold weather kicker, but this wasn't his best season, even if he was very solid all year. His leg also doesn't compare to the cannon that Neil Rackers walks around with.
The Edge: Cardinals

Return Men

J.J. Arrington and Steve Breaston vs. Santonio Holmes, Mewelde Moore, and Gary Russell
Santonio may have housed that huge punt return in the San Diego game, but this one isn't really a contest.
The Edge: Cardinals

CoachesMike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau, and Bruce Arians vs. Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm, Todd Haley, and Clancy Pendergast
This one left me debating back and forth for quite a while. Few would argue that Tomlin was the right choice for the Steelers considering the results, but Whiz and Grimm are going to be plenty motivated. The Todd Haley- Dick LeBeau matchup should be fascinating to watch, as Haley is one of the brighter young coordinators in football and LeBeau may be one of the 2 or 3 best defensive coordinators in NFL history. On the other side, Bruce Arians can leave you a little frustrated and irritated at times, but the same can be side for the Cards' overly aggressive Clancy Pendergast. I really, really want to pick the Steelers, but this is just too close to call.
The Edge: Push

Monday, January 26, 2009

SB43: Kind of a Big Deal

You know it's kind of a big deal when Eat 'N Park closes early. I mean they only close on Thanksgiving and Christmas. And now the Steeler Super Sunday.

Anyway, the rest of the town has shut down apparently for this game. Even the other local sports teams have a light schedule. The Pirates celebrated the occasion by claiming something called a Virgil Vasquez and putting him on the 40-man. Whatever. Wake me up when pitchers and catchers report. Until then, I'll be more worried about who my keepers will be in fantasy baseball than real baseball.

The Pens are just coming off the All-Star Break and don't play til Wednesday. Hard to write anything about them right now except the requisite "Let's Hope the Second Half is better."

The Panthers are remaining active and quite relevant, bumping up to third in the b-ball rankings after a big W over the Eers. They play Wednesday and Saturday against ranked folks, so there is that at least.

Still though, all of the attention these days is unquestionably on the Men of Steel. Expect a few preview posts in the days to come. Should be a fun ride folks.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Backyard Blowout

What a W by Pitt over their archrivals, the West Virginia Mountaineers. The game was close for a long time, but as the second half progressed, the Panthers just blew the doors off of West Virginia 79-67, who just couldn't hang with Pitt's depth, strength, size, speed, and skill. It got so bad that Tiesi and Frye were playing at the end. Obviously a pretty one-sided finish. I love whooping up on the Hoopies. They have that annoying little brother, inferiority complex going when it comes to Pitt. They relish any chance they can get to rub even minor victories in Pitt's face and any time someone even mentions Pitt to a WV fan they start flipping out and yelling "Eat Shit Pitt" and other nonsense like that, completely unprovoked. It's crazy how desperate they are to appear better than Pitt, even though everyone knows they aren't.

Anywho, some thoughts from the game:

-You could tell this game was in West Virginia. Multiple commercials pertained to back-woodsy things like mining, trees, agriculture, coal power, insurance for laborers (specifically truckers), and in-breeding. And I only made up 1 of those things. There were also countless WVU commercials that looked as though a high school A/V Club had produced them.

-The lighting in that dump they call an arena makes it look like you're watching a game in a high school gym where half the lights are burnt out. Then again, it is West Virginia, I guess I shouldn'tbe surprised.

-WVU student section is seriously weak. I mean, they went with the obvious "Ta-ser" chant at Levance, and I can't blame them for that, but it sounded like about 20 people were chanting it. Really, that's the best you can do against your arch-rival? I didn't hear one "Eat shit Pitt" cheer and way too many "Let's Gooooooooo Mountaineers" chants. Try mixing things up guys, it makes things more exciting. They also had a few basically inaudible cheers mixed in there aimed at DeJuan Blair, but I couldn't quite pick up what they were saying, probably something dumb. What's the point of a cheer if no one can understand what you're saying? They are no Oakland Zoo. Also, when Pitt charged back in the first half to bring the game about even, you could've heard a pin drop in there. Even the announcers were commenting on it it was so bad. And the game was tied! I'm not even going to discuss how silent they were once Pitt pulled away.

-Speaking of their fans, I can't remember the last time I saw a fan get tossed out of a game by the refs, but it definitely happened in this one. The refs tossed some dumb hoopie student out of the section. Just hilarious.

-Very exciting to see the 13-9 Backyard Brawl of 2007 highlights! I think WVU fans the state over just simultaneously threw things at their 8 inch black-and-white antenna TV's. Don't forget Mountaineer fans to make the switch to digital. It's coming soon.

-It's evident how feared Levance Fields is when he's in the game. The WVU defense backed waaay off when he was in the game because they pretty much knew they weren't going to be able to force him into any turnovers. You don't notice until Gibbs or Wanamaker starts running the point and the pressure amps up how big the difference is.

-Pitt was streaky from the foul line. They made their first 6 free throws, 4 of which were from DeJuan, but then went back to typical Pitt shooting for a while before finishing well at 15/20 on the day. Still, its a bit frustrating at times and still very much an achilles heel for this team.

-A mess of a start for Sam Young turned into a great day. He picked up 2 fouls with just less than 7 minutes to go in the first half, and then, 7 seconds into the second half, gets called again for an absolute nonsense foul. Just total garbage call by the refs. Even the announcers based it. Not good. Sam came back in at the 15:54 mark and really didn't alter his play at all, strangely. He was still active on defense and nearly got called for a charge that ended up being a blocking foul. That would have been disastrous had it been called on Sam. The gamble may have paid off for Pitt, as Sam starts filling the basket and the Panthers got up too big on WVU and the Hoopies just couldn't get back in it after Sam started playing at his peak level with a 22 point night.

-Levance Fields is very comfortable shooting from inside the 3 point arc, something that you couldn't have said in years past. He finished with 13 points on the day and made 4 regulation field goals out of 6. I think that is the biggest reason for his increased scoring touch. The team is better if he's passing more than shooting, but when a guy like Sam goes out with foul issues, Levance can more than pick up the slack, and that is huge for this team. He also looks to have ironed out some of the earlier issues he had with free throw shooting.

-Another sloppy first half for Pitt. I don't get why this keeps happening, but the Panthers are definitely a second half team. Maybe it's their depth or their strength or their physicality or something like that, but Pitt is soooooo much better in the second half it's scary. It's gotten to the point that I'm expecting it nowadays. If Pitt's up or close at half time I am feeling pretty good about our chances (the Louisville game aside, of course). WVU looked absolutely exhausted at the end.

-Nas Robinson giving very high quality minutes right now. His athleticism is superb. I think he might be taking some minutes from Biggs, and is definitely the reason that Gary McGhee's playing time has absolutely vanished. Jamie would rather have Nas at the 4 and Biggsy at the 5 and go a little small than play the worthless McGhee. And frankly, I couldn't agree more with this philosophy. If they want to play a speed game, Robinson could be a superb weapon.

-Tyrell Biggs looked badly hurt late in the first half. Appeared to be an ankle thing. He ended up returning but didn't really do a whole lot after that injury. Let's hope he's okay and that this won't turn into a nagging thing.

-Jermaine Dixon was very quiet early, and I briefly fretted that maybe this was going to be a Jermaine Dixon of old performance, but he ended up playing very well in the second half, finishing with 11 points and was an excellent 3/5 from 3-point range, a nice thing to see from him.

-DeJuan Blair staying out of foul trouble was quite pleasant to see. He struggled a bit early with his shot, uncharacteristically missing some buniies, but he rebounded nicely as his physicality overwhelmed the Mountaineers eventually and finished with yet another double-double with a 16 and 11.

-That said, the rest of the team made some silly/ useless fouls. That kind of thing can't continue. Luckily, the Eers spent much of the game doing their best impersonation of Pitt from the foul line as they went just...

All in all, that was a nice win for the Panthers, as they have traditionally struggled mightily in the WVU Crapiseum. The Big Three were critical yet again for the Panthers, as they have been all season, and if these three are clicking on all cylinders, the Panthers will be a very tough team to beat no matter who they are playing.

Links From Around the 4-1-2

Eagerly awaiting the Pitt-WVU game, so to kill time, here are some links to some interesting stories floating around that pertain to the Burgh in one way or another. (Note: Very few Super Bowl or Steeler links because I just posted a bunch the other day and, well, it's not hard to find Super Bowl stories these days.)

-I can't really link to this because it's in the Sporting New Today online edition (here's the link to the entire Issue, scroll to Page 5 for the article I'm talking about) but it doesn't sound like Scott McKillop had a good week at the Senior Bowl:
"McKillop struggled athletically, making teams wonder whether he has enough talent to be a productive starter. He struggled with felxibility, quickness and playing speed- especially when dorpping and moving in coverage. Projection: Fell from a third or fourth round prospect to a sixth-/ seventh rounder."
That's a shame to read. Hopefully McKillop is able to turn it around in workouts/ combine showings. Also, that was an opinion put forth before the actual game. I watched a portion of the tape of the game this morning and McKillop seemed to play pretty well, though certainly not great. I still think he's a third or fourth rounder somewhere, at worst.

-A columnist in the Pitt News says Bill Stull should and will be the starting QB in 2009. I agree that Pitt is definitely in a very good position to make a run at the Big East if they can get a new back or backs to carry the rushing load because the rest of the conference is losing a pretty fair amount of talent. However, he lost me with his effusive praise of those running backs. Shariff Harris can put up Shady-like numbers? Chris Burns > Darren Sproles? Really? That's supposed to be believable? I know the point of columns, especially in college papers, is that they are supposed to have something in them that stirs arguments and provokes the reader, but comments like that are just lunacy. There is one line I do whole-heartedly agree with, though: "After the Sun Bowl disaster, the coaches need to devise a new game plan of their own to put their quarterback in the best position to succeed."

-In case you somehow haven't seen this yet, you need to check out Mondesi's House's list of the greatest plays in Pittsburgh sports history. Quite impressive and comprehensive list that includes videos and pictures.

-Oh No! A Steeler has been arrested! Wait, it's Jon Dekker? Okay, never mind then. Sorry to alarm you.

-I guess the Russian Cold War between Geno and Ovie has either reached a miraculous truce or maybe never really existed at all. I'm actually pretty glad to see that for Geno, as I think he could use as many countrymen friends/ acquaintences as he can get being that he still is adjusting to the media spotlight. I was also impressed by his granting an on-ice interview after winning the accuracy contest. He has come a ridiculously long way over the past year, and is really growing off the ice. Good for him.

-In an odd sort of story, Kevan Smith is leaving the Pitt Football team to go play baseball for Pitt instead. He has already joined the baseball team for the coming season and is working out to get ready to play with them. He'll have 3 years of eligibility there. I never realized it before, but apparently Smith was a pretty highly regarded catcher coming out of high school. He was never much of a QB, as any good Pitt fan knows, but here's hoping he finds his way with the baseball team.

That's a wrap, as the Pitt game is getting under way shortly and I need to prepare for this one. I'll probably post shortly after its over. Its always fun to go up against the worthless hoopies and their ridiculous inferiority complex. Go Panthers!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Pirates Get New Uniforms

The Pirates have new uniforms for the 2009 season, and as was long expected, the dreadful red uniforms are gone. So no matter what their uniforms looked like, we knew this was going to be a positive move. I mean look at these hideous things:So it's not all bad. That said, I think the new black uniforms, the one Nate McLouth is sporting on the far right, are solid third uniforms, and I think a black uniform is a good addition. I've never much cared for having grey and white uniforms, they're just too similar and too...I guess bland would be the right word, especially now that they have sleeves added back onto the uniforms, that takes away the black undeneath part that at least added something. I mean look at those two uniforms in the middle up there. What is even the least bit remarkable about those? Not a damn thing.

Of course the Pirates, in all their bountiful enthusiasm, are taking the new uniform thing to a new level. As Dejan Kovacevic reports in the Post-Gazette, "Frank Coonelly explained as part of the announcement today at the team's annual media luncheon that one reason for restoring the sleeves was that four of the franchise's five championships were won in that fashion and that the move was made 'as part of our return to championship-caliber baseball.'"

Riiiiiiight. I never realized how important adding sleeves was to a baseball team. Well then that would be the first move this team has made toward returning to championship baseball this offseason. Sorry, overpaying signing Ramon Vazquez just doesn't quite do it for me.

Anyway, as much as I like the idea of a black uniform, I'd much rather have the black become our home color instead of the gray, and then use a different third uniform, something that better embodies the idea of a third uniform. Something very different, yet marketable and representative of the organization. So, here's what I'm thinking:Disregard the goofy looking white guy on the right and focus instead on Pops. I mean how cool would wearing the Stargell Stars Jersey be? Am I the only one who thinks that would be unbelievably cool? I don't know maybe, but I'd rather see that than any other third design jersey the Buccos can come up with. Especially now that the Bucs have brought back sleeves on at least some of their Unis this makes sense. If they really want the fans to be fired up about new jerseys, I think this is the way to go.

Some Super Bowl Links

Here we are folks, just 9 days away from Super Bowl XLIII, and because there is already a crazy amount of coverage out there, and not a whole lot else is happening right now in the sports world these days, I thought I'd link to some of the better/more interesting coverage around.

-The Arizona Republic says the Cardinals D knows its up against a major challenge when they took on our own Big Ben Roethlisberger next weekend. I about soiled myself with laughter when I read the line about the Cards using Brian St. Pierre to simulate Ben. Uhmm... yeah I think that's just a bit off. I watched St. Pierre stink the joint out in too many exhibitions over the years. If thats their best bet for prepping for Roethlisberger, I like our chances a whole lot more than originally.

-The Sporting News has 10 different angles of the Steelers/ Cardinals matchup.

-The National Football Post doesn't seem to think there are many storylines in the Super Bowl. I guess the numerous Pittsburgh connections and the Tomlin/Whiz/Grimm storyline isn't appetizing enough for them. I tend to agree, but it's still early, and storylines can still emerge.

-The Post also examines a little bit of the long-rumored Roethlisberger/ Whisenhunt feud. I must say, I'm a little surprised this hasn't gotten more play, as it is definitely a pretty good storyline and is interesting, at least to me.

-Bodog provides a list of some of the prop bets for the Super Bowl. Always a fun thing to read and think over. I definitely like the over on the "Big Ben" bet. I don't think 5 is enough. As for which NBC show will get the most promos, I think it has to be "30 Rock" right? Everyone knows how much that network is in love with Tina Fey and her award-winning, yet under-watched TV show. I think Jay Leno has a chance, too, and I disagree with their bet that "The Office" is the favorite. Though I think there's a chance 30 Rock and The Office could be paired together in promos.

-We're the Greatest! At least according to Page 2's David Fleming, we are. And by we, I of course mean the Steelers. The greatest franchise in sports, folks, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Also, some good observations at the bottom about the Steelers. I especially liked the second one, involving LaMarr Woodley and his psychotic look last week.

-Scouts Inc. ranks the players in the Super Bowl. I disagree with a fair amount of this assessment, but its at least worth a read. I think sometimes the numbers guys get a bit too into the numbers and aren't able to incorporate non-quantifiable aspects into their calculations. I do agree with their top 3, though after that it gets a bit murky. How can an injured and cancerous player like Anquan Boldin be considered the 6th best player in this game? breaks down who's better position-by-position. The Steelers get the overall edge in this matchup, though its very slight.

-Limas Sweed is eager to get another shot and thinks that he can come through this time for the Steelers, he just hopes to get a shot. Limas, no offense buddy. I mean I like you and think you can definitely turn into a half-decent receiver, but will be praying you don't see the field in the Super Bowl. I just can't possibly trust you.

-ESPN tries to get a story on Chuck Noll, the man who is most responsible for turning the Steelers into THE NFL franchise of all NFL franchises. Not a bad one, but the man still likes his privacy and probably just wants to be left alone.

-The Terrible Blog looks at the weird complaints Steelers fans seem to have of Ben Roethlisberger. I don't know that I would use the word hate like he does, but I do agree that the constant bitching about Ben has to end. It all seems to go back to the fact that he is far from a prototypical NFL QB. But you know what? That's fine with me. I mean, it's one thing to yell at your TV in the middle of the game because he held onto the ball too long or because he took another hit in the pocket or something like that, I mean everyone does that no matter who the player is. But the crazy, yapping yinzers who call up talk shows (though not now that the Steelers are in XLIII, of course) are just downright annoying. Ben is very, very effective at what he does even if it isn't always the prettiest or most normal way of doing it. Winning is winning, and that's what should always be most important to us.

-Peter King examines the Sean Morey angle for this Super Bowl. King is right when he says, "Rarely do you hear a player so affectionate for a team he left." Morey truely loved his time in Pittsburgh, and I wouldn't have minded seeing him hang around here a while longer to ply his trade, but I'd say things worked out pretty well this way, too.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Cardinals ties to Pittsburgh

With 10 days to go until Super Bowl XLIII, I felt it would be a little early to delve into doing actual coverage or previews of the game, so instead I decided to go with a bit of a slanted angle and analyze every possible little Pittsburgh-related tie from the Arizona Cardinals roster.

1. Ken Whisenhunt- Obviously, the Whiz has strong ties to the Burgh, being that he was an assistant under Bill Cowher for 6 seasons. He was the Offensive Coordinator for 3 years, including in the Super Bowl, and the tight ends coach for 3 years before that. Many fans were hoping he would be the head coach when Cowher retired, but I think things worked out pretty well for all parties this way.

2. Russ Grimm- Grimm has as many ties to the Burgh as anyone in football, probably. He was born in Scottdale, PA, and of course played his college ball at Pitt before a tremendous NFL Career. Grimm coached the Offensive Line for 6 years here in Pittsburgh, and spent the last 3 years of that time as the Assistant Head Coach. Most considered him to be the favorite to land the head coaching job when Cowher retired before Tomlin pulled the big upset.

3. Kevin Spencer- The Steelers former Special Teams coach who followed Whiz and Grimm out west.

4. Todd Haley- son of former Steelers director of player personnel Dick Haley, he was also a ballboy for the Steelers in the 70's dynasty days. Nepotism much? He also went to Upper St. Clair High School during that time.

5. Kevin Spencer- He was the Steelers special teams coach from 2002-2006 and then left the Burgh with Whiz.

6. Teryl Austin- The defensive backs coach of the Cardinals is from Sharon, PA and went to Pitt, so he's OK in my book. He started for 3 years at Pitt and graduated in 1988.

7. Bill Davis- The linebackers coach for the Cards spent 3 seasons (1992-94) as a defensive assistant for the Steelers. Also, its not Pittsburgh (or even Pennsylvania) but he is from Youngstown.

8. John Lott- The Cards strength and conditioning coach played for the Steelers in 1987.

9. Mike Miller- Miller is the Cards receivers coach and has numerous ties to the Burgh. He attended Plum High School, and followed that up by going to college at Clarion. He was an intern with the Steelers, and then he spent two years as the Running Backs coach at Robert Morris. Finally, he worked as an offensive assistant for the Steelers from 1999-2003.

10. Matt Raich- He is a defensive assistant for the Cards, and worked for the Steelers during Cowher's tenure as both an offensive assistant and as an intern. But it doesn't stop there. No, he spent 3 years at Robert Morris as a coach and 2 years at Westminster. And of course, he's from Monaca and graduated from Westminster and is even in their Hall of Fame.

Wow, 10 coaches out of the 16 on staff. That was a few more than I thought we were going to get. And there are some pretty deep ties, there, from numerous natives to working at the local small schools. Let's see what we can get from the players

Players11. Larry Fitzgerald- Of coures, Larry went down in history as one of the best offensive players in Pitt history with two unbelievable seasons at the school in 2002 and 2003. He won countless awards, was nominated for (and nearly won) the Heisman Trophy. He owns every single-season receiving record the Panthers have and is the best player I've ever seen wearing the Panther jersey (sorry Shady you weren't quite at that level).

12. Steve Breaston- Everyone remembers the incredible hype surrounding Breaston when he came out of Woody High and went to Michigan. He was one of the most spectacular high school players around in his day. The college career probably didn't go as well as he'd hoped, but he's been very good with the Cards.

13. Levi Brown- I don't usually include Penn State as a Pittsburgh tie, but in this case I'm doing so in order to boost my total number.

14. Reggie Wells- Wells, many don't know this, is from Library, PA and went to college at Clarion. Could you have possibly imagined there would be 2 Clarion ties and 2 Robert Morris ties to the Super Bowl? I couldn't have.

15. Gerald Hayes- Hayes was the first of several very good middle linebackers to come through Pitt and has turned into an excellent pro.

16. Sean Morey- Of course, Morey was the special teams specialist for the Steelers for 3 seasons and won a Super Bowl ring here. He's technically a receiver even though he caught 6 passes in those 3 years.

17. Brian St. Pierre- That's right, the quintessential 3rd string QB is still hanging around the league. He attempted his only career pass as a Steeler.

18. Jerame Tuman- Tuman spent 9 seasons with the Steelers to start his career. He caught 43 passes and scored 6 touchdowns in his time in the Burgh, but was never anything more than a second tight end.

19. Clark Haggans- Haggans technically isn't on the Cards active roster, and he was placed on injured reserve in December. Clark spent his first 7 seasons as a Steeler and recorded 32.5 sacks over that time.

20. Pat Ross- He played for Ohio in the Big 33 Classic. Obviously, not really a Pittsburgh connection, but this is something that is closely linked to the Burgh.

21. Keilen Dykes- Played at West Virginia and is from Youngstown. So basically he danced around the Pittsburgh area.

So there you have it, 21 coaches and players from the Cards that have ties back home. Pittsburgh really is everywhere.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

10 Predictions for the Pens' Second Half

Well, a mostly disappointing first half of the NHL season concluded for our Pittsburgh Penguins last night with a 2-1 loss to the Hurricanes. The Pens sit with 50 points in 48 games, which is a pretty disappointing number and puts them on pace for 85 points for the season, a number that couldn't possibly put them in the postseason. The All-Star Game is of course this weekend, and the Pens don't get back on the ice until a week from today, the 28th of January.

Right now, there appear to be 10 contenders for the Eastern Conference playoffs, and the Pens rank 10th of that bunch. So clearly, something has to go different for the Penguins in the second half, and they need to pick up the pace a bit if they have even the slightest hope of putting together another memorable spring playoff run.

So with all that in mind, here are 10 predictions I am going out on a limb to make for the second half of the NHL season for our Penguins.
1. Evgeni Malkin wins the scoring title, Sidney finishes third with you-know-who sandwiched in between. In case you don't actually know who, I'm referring to Alexander Ovechkin. I think Geno ends up 121 Points, 38 Goals and 83 Assists. Ovie has 114 Points, 55 Goals and 59 Assists, and Crosby has 110 Points, 34 Goals and 76 Assists.

2. Ray Shero DOES get a winger and does rid the Pens of one of their many defensemen, but it's not going to be anyone notable, even if they do end up on Sid's wing. I think, in fact I hope, that Shero freely acknowledges and realizes that this Penguins squad is not on the same caliber of the team from a year ago and thus does not deserve the benefit of gaining a star difference-making piece at the expense of their future. The most likely targets in the event of a blockbuster deal, now that J-Staal has been inked long-term, would be Letang and Goligoski. For one, both of those guys are too important to the current roster to trade away, let alone the team's future. So instead, I'd be willing to bet they make a deal with another potential contending squad, maybe someone out in the Western Conference, and send away a mid-level blue liner like Rob Scuderi, Mark Eaton, or Hal Gill in exchange for a similarly mid-level winger. Not that I have any solutions, but I think this is as good as we can expect from Shero this year.

3. A recently injured offensive defenseman starts playing very well in March and is a key point in a late-season run for the Penguins- And it's not Sergei Gonchar. Instead, I'm referring to Mr. Ryan Whitney. I think part of the reason why the Pens won't be able to seriously consider themselves a championship contender is that there is no way I can see Gonch being at 100% effectiveness by the end of the season. Being away from the game for that long is just too much of a setback, and example numero uno of that is the aforementioned Whitney. However, I think Whitney's mediocre play of late is more because he is still very much in recovery and hasn't come close to being 100% yet. I think having this week off will help, and with a few more weeks after that to get back to form, by March I predict that Whitters will be back to the promising level that once convinced Ray Shero to sign him to a 6 year extension.

4. The Pens struggle for at least a handful of games after the All-Star Break. I don't think this team is ready just yet to get back on track. There have been promising signs, and I'm not saying they will have another long losing streak, but I say they idling along at about .500 puck for at least the first handful of games.

5. Mathieu Garon gets a look in net shortly after the All-Star Break as Marc-Andre Fleury's struggles with inconsistency continue in the coming weeks. Garon plays pretty well. Assuming prediction number 4 is right, I think the Flower is a big reason for this middling performance, as he continues to battle the inconsistency issues that have plagued him all season. Garon steps in for Fleury a few times, at least, and puts together some sound performances that get the local talking heads yapping away about a goalie competition.

6. But, once again, Fleury responds to a challenge by finally playing consistent and playing well in the net as one of the key cogs in a late season run. Much like the Ty Conklin debate of a year ago, Fleury seems to get a fire lit under him by in-house competition. His much-improved play is a big reason why...

7. The Pens make the playoffs as the seventh seed. Fleury wrests the starting job away and makes it all his own and this combined with Sid, Geno, Petr Gunn, Whitters, and the return of a so-so Gonch get the Pens into a playoff spot with a very good stretch from mid-February to the end of the season. The Eastern Conference playoff seeds are: 1) Boston 2) Washington 3) New Jersey 4) Montreal 5) New York Rangers 6) Philadelphia 7) Pittsburgh 8) Buffalo.

8. The Pens pull a first round upset, but exit stage right in the second round. I mean, going off of prediction 7, that would mean a Pens-Caps first round matchup, and really, is there any other way for a Pens-Caps playoff series to end than with the black and gold advancing? I think not. One of my favorite new rivalries gets a big-time new chapter added to it in what I think would be a fantastic, well-played, frisky matchup. Pens take it in 6.

9. Bill Thomas and Chris Minard end up spending the majority of the second half in the NHL. Janne Pesonen doesn't. Given that the Pens still have a fair amount of injuries on the roster as well as some underachievers to boot, I expect Minard and Thomas to get some more chances right after the All-Star Break ends and they are inevitably called back up to the show. I think they both put together solid efforts, Minard maybe even playing well enough to get a permanent spot, while Thomas operates as more of a fill-in once the team gets healthier.

10. The Red Wings beat the Bruins in the Stanley Cup. Okay, I ran out of predictions for the Penguins second half. I mean, ten is quite a few to come up with. So, instead I went with the most obvious area for my final prediction: A Stanley Cup Final prediction. The Bruins are without question the best team in the East right now. The Wings may be a definite second behind the Sharks out West, but they have almost unparalleled postseason experience, which is a definite difference-maker when the two squads meet up for the title. For Burgh fans, I think we'll have to grudgingly root for Boston to grab yet another freaking sports title, thus making them 4-for-4 in the past 4 years in the major sports leagues if it were to happen. I don't think it does, though.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pirates Overpay 4 Players

We actually have some Pirates news that is worth me spending a few minutes typing up! Downright shocking, right? The news is that the Bucs signed 4 of the 6 players on their roster that were set for arbitration. Adam LaRoche, John Grabow, Zach Duke, and Tyler Yates were the quartet who signed and Paul Maholm and Nate McLouth were the pair who didn't.

The elder LaRoche signed for 1 year and... 7.05 million dollars! If that seems a solid 2 million dollars too high to you... then you and I think very much alike. I know that LaRoche made 5 million dollars last year, so his salary figured to go up to the 7 million range, but what on earth did he do last season to deserve a raise of even 1 penny? He spent the first few months of the season crapping the bed yet again, and by the time he put together his inevitable second half comeback, the Pirates were already in the division cellar and were packing things in for the 2009 season. The end of season numbers are fine and he cranked out 25 home runs with an .841 OPS, but he was atrocious in the first half. I hate this mindset of a guy getting a raise just because its a new season and he wasn't completely awful for the entire season. LaRoche's deal should have given him 5-6 million or so in guaranteed cash and then should have had crazy incentives that could have propped it up to 9 million, or maybe more if they were lofty incentives (20 first half home runs, a .300 batting average, a .900 OPS, you get the idea). I just can't fathom that we live in a sports world where Adam LaRoche is the worst hitting first baseman in baseball for three straight months in 2008 and then gets a 2 million dollar raise to start the following season because he hit well when there was absolutely, positively no pressure on him. In case you couldn't tell, I'm not a LaRoche fan.

The other guys signed were Zach Duke (who became the highest paid batting practice pitcher in history with a 2 million dollar deal), John Grabow (2.3 million dollars for a lefty specialist... mehh), Tyler Yates (the most reasonable deal with just 1.3 million dollars which should be a decent contract as long as John Russell doesn't wear his arm down again).

Clearly, I'm not exactly enthused by these maneuvers, but at least its something worth talking about with the Pirates right now, which judging by my posts on this site, is a definite rarity these days.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pitt Rebounds Against Syracuse

The lone blemish on the Pittsburgh sports weekend belonged to the Pitt basketball squad in their Saturday evening loss to Louisville on their home turf. It was a tough loss that was made more difficult by Pitt holding a sizable 10 point lead late in the game and some spotty officiating that drove me to the brink of insanity.

I was more than a little worried about this game tonight, because while Pitt has had a lot of success against the Orange of late, the Cuse are still a very good squad and are one of the few teams that actually have the ability to match up with DeJuan Blair's uhmm... girth... on the inside. And being that the Cuse are at 8, they are obviously a pretty good and pretty frisky squad.

But the Panthers put on an absolute statement game with a 78-60 smackdown of Syracuse. The game was infinitely tighter at the half at 31-28 Pitt, and the Panthers were clanking the free throws early on causing a near-riot in the stands at the Pete. But the second half was a very different story, as Pitt outscored the Orange 47-32 in that stretch and coasted to a big win on the backs of DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and Levance Fields.Outside of the Big 3, there wasn't much scoring done by this squad, as those three had a whopping 57 points. The other guys on the roster all filled their roles very well, though, especially in that exciting second half.
-Tyrell Biggs put up an 8 point 5 rebound night and was relentless in his physicality inside against Syracuse. The Orange were really shaken up by how insanely physical the Panthers are. Despite Syracuse having two tanks inside in Jackson and Onuaku, the Orange just seemed very uncomfortable to me.
-Jermaine Dixon didn't have the scoring touch he's had in the past few games, but he had another very nice evening, doing a bit of everything. He's excellent guarding the perimeter, had a stunning block on a Syracuse breakaway, made a few steals happen, and continues to be a pretty effective penetrating guard. I think this kid has a much higher ceiling than I would have expected when I first saw him play.
-Gil Brown's athleticism is a force to be reckoned with at times. He's definitely a little on the wild side and still very raw, but when he matches up with opposing swing men types, they just have a ton of trouble playing him the right way even if he's having an off night on just 1/6 shooting.
-Brad Wanamaker is one of the better reserve guards around. He's frisky defensively and is superb handling the ball. I know he projects to start at the 2 or 3 depending on the situation in the future but, aside from Levance, I think he's the best ball handler on the roster. He's also very smart and makes great passes and plays.
-Ashton Gibbs was his usual serviceable self and is at least giving me some confidence when he comes into the games, as opposed to early in the season when he made me fret every time he brought the ball up. I don't mind seeing him get 7-8 minutes a night to spell Levance.
-I was very impressed by the work of Nasir Robinson, and I think, like I said here a few weeks ago, that he HAS to get more minutes as the season progresses. I originally compared him to Gil Brown, and while the size and athleticism are there, he's already more physical than Gil and plays better inside than him even if he struggles at the perimeter and has questionable ball handling ability. I like the work he gaves us at the 4, and I wouldn't mind taking advantage of that athleticism for 5-10 minutes a game against a slower power forward.

I guarantee that Syracuse fans are going to bitch and moan about the refs in this game. In fact, I already have seen that on the message boards (a given for fans to whine there, but this is more than usual given the weirdness of the game), but the officiating seemed equal to me. Blair was getting basically sucker punched half the time he had the ball inside, and Syracuse was leaping around at their offensive zone going consistently over the back and nothing was being called. Pitt was doing the same, no question about it, but it was equal. The technicals, well, I don't know enough about that because it's hard to tell anything about T's when you're at the game, like I was. It's all about context, and while Harris' I have no idea about, Jackson's was a no question about it T. He gave Blair an arms-extended shove after a basket, and Blair fell backwards. You HAVE to call a T there, it was blatant and the refs made it plainly obvious they weren't going to stand for that kind of play.

But maybe all these complaints lead to a larger issue here. Is the Big East becoming too physical? I personally don't think so, but it is becoming clear that the refs are having a very difficult time officiating a lot of these games because you could call a foul every single time down the court on somebody. Hell you could probably call a flagrant just about every other time down the court. I don't really mind the style of play so long as the refs call it the same way all game long, and that was my big complaint about the Louisville game. The refs were blowing their whistles like crazy early in that one, and then as the game wore on, they realized they were on pace to call about 200 fouls and ended up swallowing the whistles when they probably should have been calling at least some fouls.