Future Blog

The Steelers are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff race just nine months after winning the Super Bowl. Jim Wexell looks at recent history and a couple of blueprints for recovery.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 29, 8:30 A.M.

Since the playoff field was expanded to 12 teams in 1990, four Super Bowl champions have failed to return to the playoffs. The two most recent examples are the New England Patriots and the Tampa Bay Bucs. The Patriots bounced back and remain contenders today, while the Bucs bounced back to win a division title last year, but this year will not make the playoffs for the third time since winning the 2002 Super Bowl.

What did those teams do differently? Well, one made extensive use of free agency and the other attacked the draft, and that team, the Patriots, should be the blueprint for the Steelers' rebuilding job.

After a 9-7 2002 season, the Patriots opened the off-season by trading their awful right tackle, Greg Robinson-Randall, for a fifth-round pick. Then they called Daniel Snyder and traded this year's fifth for next year's fourth. Then they traded safety Tebucky Jones for a third, seventh and next year's fourth. On draft day, they traded a third to Miami for next year's second. It's the kind of maneuver many Steelers fans called for during last draft season when the Steelers allegedly had no room on their roster for all of their draft picks. The Steelers understandably weren't of a rebuilding mindset, but they are now and the Patriots' 2003 draft can be the blueprint.

To continue, the Patriots traded up in the 2003 first round for Ty Warren, then traded down from 19 (Kyle Boller) to 41 for a 2004 No. 1 (Vince Wilfork). They traded 41 and a third-rounder back up to draft Eugene Wilson in the second round and Dan Klecko in the fourth. Then they traded up in the fourth round for Asante Samuel and down in the fifth round for Dan Koppen. It was a draft that delivered half a secondary, half a defensive line, the cornerstone of their offensive line and eventually Corey Dillon. Of course, the Patriots won two more Super Bowls and remain a contender for their fourth in six years.

Really, the Steelers won't have a choice in the off-season. The 2007 crop of free agents should be the weakest in history, and there are several teams out there -- thanks to the expanded salary cap last year -- who are armed to the teeth. The Bucs, for instance, boast they have $30 million to spend next off-season. But on what? San Diego guard Kris Dielman? No, the Steelers should receive another strong batch of compensatory picks. Just hope they make better use of them this time. In fact, somebody ought to call Snyder now before he gives his last few picks away to someone else.

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farruggia: Our blocking schemes during pass plays were pitiful. Our offensive linemen did not know who to block. This could have been partly due to crowd noise, but the Ravens' blitz schemes were masterful. I remember when the Steelers caused the same confusion not so long ago. I do not, however, want Rex Ryan as our next coach. This man is a bully. He lives in my neighborhood and has sucker punched one of the other neighbors over a kids argument. The result: nothing was done to Ryan after a police complaint was filed, due to his "lofty" status with the Ravens. The other guy moved out of the neighborhood. But I digress.

You digressed yourself right into the future. So let's cross Rex Ryan off the list. Other posters have called for Jeff Fisher, Tony Dungy and John Fox, but it won't happen. If the Steelers couldn't cough up enough money for Bill Cowher -- a guy they seem to really like -- after he won the Super Bowl, why would they pay even more for someone else?

farruggia: Bill, please let some spit fly. Fire up these guys. Yell at a coach or two. The only person who was farther away from the action than you during the game was Staley. Your big personnel changes during the game were to take out your best cornerback and put in Chad Brown on kickoff coverage. Wait, maybe I am missing the true genius of how to improve your kick coverage, maybe you never kick off by getting shut out.

Fine post, but I could care less about spittle and screaming. I thought it was stupid when he was younger and it would've been an embarrassment in that game. Nothing he could've done that day would've changed a thing. Coaching is done during the week. That's when Cowher should pull Hines Ward aside and read him the riot act for committing a dumb personal foul within spittle distance of two officials. It was the dumbest move of the game, but what's Cowher supposed to do? Scream at his best warrior publicly just for the sake of it? Really, how can Cowher coach these guys like he did before? Don't you know that 2-05 changed everything? Anyway, the reason I used this post is to make a point about Cowher's big moves. For the biggest game of the season, he benched Ike Taylor for Deshea Townsend, who was beat on a double move by a tight end for a touchdown on the Ravens' first series. How could he scream at anyone else after that move blew up in his face so early?

ChefGriff: Rest In Peace Mr. Bettis, And Thank you for all you have done. It did not go unnoticed.

Yesterday I read a story on Zach Crockett and his cooking skills. He said when he has the team over for big meals, it helps camaraderie like nothing else. I thought of the late John Bettis and his wife Gladys, who had the team over for that big pre-Super Bowl dinner. I'm convinced that helped bring the team together.

MONDAY, NOV. 27, NOON

The breakdowns in the offensive line were many and of course great, but one aspect stood out in slo-mo review: The line didn't come off the ball at the snap. That means crowd noise played a factor and helps explain why this team is playing so poorly on the road. But what was it doing differently last year?

Last year the Steelers won five straight road games leading up to the Super Bowl. The game preceding the run, a 26-7 loss at Indianapolis, was similar to the loss yesterday at Baltimore. The Steelers started that game with six plays for minus three yards. The Colts raced to a 10-0 lead and pressured Ben Roethlisberger the rest of the way. Yesterday, the Steelers actually did better in their first two series. They gained 12 yards and converted a first down against the Ravens. That was a typical Pittsburgh start this season. They're averaging 3.5 yards per play with 14 first downs and 10 points on action in the first two series of the six road games. Take out the Atlanta game and the Steelers are averaging 2.4 yards per play with five first downs and no points in 10 series.

Last year, the first game at Indy was the exception. In the Steelers' first two series of their final six road games, they averaged 6.3 yards per play with 22 first downs and 34 points. Take out the first Indy game and the Steelers averaged 6.9 yards per play with 22 first downs and 34 points in 10 series, and that included three playoff games. That kind of production results in early leads and changed game plans, and of course Steelers-style wins.

So what's happened? Bob Smizik theorizes in today's Post-Gazette that Ken Whisenhunt has lost confidence in the ball-control ability of Willie Parker, and that the loss of Jerome Bettis's inside running is the biggest factor. But in those quick getaways last season, Bettis carried only one time in third-and-short. He scored a touchdown on the play, but it was the game at Cleveland. In those 12 series in last year's final six road games, Bettis carried eight times for 30 yards. Half of that production – four for 15 and a touchdown – came in Cleveland. So the Bettis factor was minimal. Smizik gets closer in regard to Whisenhunt's confidence in the ground game, but again the statistics prove it's a minimal factor. Last year, after the loss at Indianapolis, the Steelers began to pass more on first down to get ahead on the road, but still they ran 17 times on 27 first-down plays; that's 63 percent of the time. This season the Steelers run on first down early in the game 54 percent of the time. In the success at Atlanta the Steelers ran six times on nine first-down plays. In the other five games they ran on first down 47 percent of the time.

So the slow starts, which ultimately lead to immense pressure on their built-to-run offensive line, aren't tied significantly to the loss of Jerome Bettis or the play-calling of Ken Whisenhunt. Other than a general lack of overall execution, the biggest difference appears to be the loss of Antwaan Randle El. In the opening two drives of the five road games leading up to last year's Super Bowl, Randle El caught five passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. All five receptions went for first downs, including three third-down plays. In the opening two series of the six road games this season, No. 3 receiver Nate Washington has two catches for 33 yards (both converted third-and-longs) but the Steelers haven't thrown to him early since an intended pass was intercepted by Oakland's Fabian Washington.

Oh, yeah, the O-line breakdowns … Even though Kendall Simmons said the Ravens brought eight and nine players, it only looked that way. If it happened yesterday, it was rare. The culprits on the nine sacks appeared to be (in order): Dan Kreider, Marvel Smith, Max Starks (assist Willie Parker), Smith, Jeff Hartings (assist Starks), Smith, Kendall Simmons, QB scramble (assist Simmons), and Hartings.

So by my count Smith allowed three sacks and two forced fumbles, one of which went for a Ravens touchdown. Hartings was next with two sacks allowed and a forced fumble, and on that play Kendall Simmons's man was right behind Hartings's man for the sack. Starks had a second sack nullified by defensive holding in the secondary. That's four sacks allowed by the tackles, four sacks allowed by the C-RG combo and one by the fullback, while Parker offered very little help as a pass-blocker in the backfield.

When I watch Adalius Thomas I think back to Roethlisberger telling me that Brett Keisel is a linebacker. Maybe it's worth a look after seeing Thomas give the Ravens a serious big-boy look to their front seven. Even though there isn't a DeMarcus Ware or Shawne Merriman to be had in the Steelers' projected draft range (10-16), perhaps an Alan Branch or a similar king-sized defensive end could be drafted, followed by a move of Keisel to some sort of elephant linebacker position in certain situations. As Keisel loses weight and transitions, the rookie 3-4 end could also spend his first year in a similar transition. Otherwise, the pass-rusher pickings are small. It appears the value picks will be at cornerback and offensive tackle, but since defense has been addressed only once in the last 5 first rounds, defense should be the target next April.

Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, four champions did not make it back to the playoffs the next year. Of those four, two did make it back to the playoffs two years later. All four made it back within three years of winning the Super Bowl.

Troy Polamalu sprained his MCL in the middle of the third quarter. His last play was a third-and-six incompletion. He faked a blitz, turned his back to the line as if to drop into coverage, spun around and blitzed, but was blocked at the line as he made a spin move. The second spin is what got him tangled up in the middle of a pile and presumably where he got hurt.

Today's best of the message boards

JustStillin'Why didn't Whiz go max-protect versus a spread?

Honestly, I didn't see one blitz in which the Ravens sent more than the Steelers could block. Maybe I'm wrong, but the running backs were no help. The Ravens faked a lot of blitzes too and that played havoc with the Steelers' communications, and when they did find their man they were often run over or around.

PSUblackNgoldBased on you saying that a pass rusher would be a reach, do you feel that Gaines Adams and Quentin Moses a) will not be available in the teens, b) are not worth a draft pick in the teens, or c) not worth trying to fit into Dick Lebeau's system?

I view both as pure 4-3 ends, but I am willing to make adjustments based on linebacker drills at the combine. Gaines will be drafted too early and Moses is playing like a mid-rounder this season. In fact, after three-quarters of the season both looked like they're playing to avoid injury. So it's a case of bad fits and me being unwilling to bend for two underachievers. Now, LaMarr Woodley interests me in the same way Tamba Hali interested me last year, but until I learn otherwise he's a 4-3 end as well. Besides, I don't know if a small 4-3 DE is worthy of being picked so early.

KildarnerI don't think [Keith] Rivers is going to come out. He's a smart, high motor player though that's always around the ball. Pretty light at 6-3 230lbs. He gets handled at the LOS quite often but plays extremely well in space. I expect him to stay, and try to become a top 10 pick two years from now.

If he's smart he won't come out. He needs to grow into that body and perhaps change positions and become an edge rusher. But I wouldn't write him off as not being physical. His potential is intriguing, and he looks taller than 6-3.

SteelinGa Jim, I disagree that Cowher will get re-motivated. He's finished. Even Cleveland writers noticed it last week. His mind is in NC. The only way he rallies, or stays around next year is if he gets divorced.

The argument for Whis and Grimm is the same as for Joe Greene from Noll's staff...but they went with Cowher. This team is molded in Cowher's image, and without him - and they are without him this year - they suck. A new Coach and a season or two of reconstruction is called for.

I think the Rooney's will pick a good one. And that coach will get Ben, Troy, FWP and a decent core. If he's lucky, the new coach will get Dick Lebeau as well.

You may be right, but my point is that the embarrassment in Baltimore could jolt Cowher back to life. As for promoting in-house, I don't believe Whisenhunt and Greene are similar. Greene busted out as an assistant coach. Whisenhunt is still a young guy on his way up and he's proven he can coach, and I prefer he stay here. That would also solve the Dick LeBeau question. But it is a tough call. A new coach would have a cleansing effect. It's just that I'd hate to knee-jerk and think that a completely new staff is the answer. Stability in tough times has been an organizational strength.

Mulefunk This is a lack of a true identity. It's 2003 all over again.

What came first: the chicken or the egg? I think the poor performance of the O-line led to their lack of identity in 2003.

FerrousThe very moment that Paul Allen gave Holmgren 8 mill per, was the beginning of the end of Cowher's PGH reign.

Bingo! This, and not the theory that Cowher wants to spend more time with his family, makes sense. It's a fact of life that you don't get into six-pack shape to retire to long walks on the beach with your wife. It's about the money.

ChipTheSteelerFanAfter watching the Ravens' defense yesterday, what about Rex Ryan?

I certainly considered this. He's worth looking into. But I think he may be too much like Cowher, too emotional. My guess is the Rooneys would harken back to someone more similar in style to Chuck Noll.

SteelMagnoliasI was wondering if the insiders could find out how studious Ben is in regards to film study, etc...

One starting defensive player told a reporter a few weeks ago that the team is tired of Roethlisberger being babied and that he doesn't study hard. Now, sometimes these things are said in frustration and shouldn't be taken too seriously. Roethlisberger has always struck me as a Jim McMahon/Joe Namath/Bobby Layne type who has great instincts but doesn't spend much time in the film room. However, you can see his interest in the sideline photos. I'd prefer a more serious student, but I don't know that it's hurting him on the field. I'm hoping this season, this game, will light a spark in him.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 22, 8:30 A.M.

The Black Eyed Peas won three music awards last night so there's hope for all of us.

Yes, this travel day started with optimism, because, yes, it's proof that any of us can accomplish anything. But the question right now is: Can I stir up interesting football banter in the middle of blah-blah-blah season? Let's try.

Brian Billick is a raving egomaniac, we all know that, so I can't help but think his comment that the injury to back-up tight end Daniel Wilcox is his "biggest concern" was a slap at the upcoming game with the Steelers. Snarky jerk. My feeling is Billick and the Ravens should have these two concerns: 1.) Their two guards are first-year starter Jason Brown and raw rookie Chris Chester and, 2.) The Ravens' defense allows a stunning 13.4 yards per completion, a league worst. Also, I believe the 35, 26, 27 and 24 points per game they've scored since Billick fired his offensive coordinator should be tempered by the fact they put those numbers up against New Orleans, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Atlanta, the dregs of the NFL's defenders. My guess is Billick is concerned with plenty more than his No. 2 tight end with the Steelers coming in as underdogs against his high-riding first-place team that has to be feeling pretty good and comfortable with that three-game cushion.

The biggest concern for the Steelers this game seems to be return man B.J. Sams, but my hunch is that last week was the low point for the Steelers' special teams. Josh Cribbs has played better than Sams all season. In fact, Sams only exploded last week with his big game against Atlanta. Cribbs surprised the Steelers last week but he's been a touchdown-return waiting to happen. My hunch is the Steelers will respond to that breakdown with a big coverage game Sunday.

Even though they've been stocking the position since the 2004 draft, here's an argument that the Steelers could draft a much-needed cornerback in the first round next April: In 2005 the Steelers gave Hines Ward a $10 million bonus and Cedrick Wilson a $2 million bonus to sign contracts and in 2006 drafted Santonio Holmes in the first round. So just because they gave Ike Taylor $6.5 million and Deshea Townsend $2.3 million in bonus money in 2006 doesn't mean they won't draft a cornerback first in 2007. Business is business, yes, but the Steelers have a precedent for caring more about team needs than monies spent.

Bill Cowher says he's willing to look at any and every option to fix his kick coverage teams. You'd hope he's serious since we're all supposed to buy into this single-elimination tournament. So get Troy Polamalu out there. Get Brett Keisel out there. I wouldn't rule out Hines Ward, either. If you remember his coverage ability as a rookie, you'll agree. And what about Joey Porter? Come on. This is the game of the year. Pull out all the stops. No sense saving anybody for next season, right? Of course, my bet is only Keisel will be used, but it sure would light a fire under everyone to see some of these stars take a turn or two on teams.

Jon Gruden has denied interest in the Steelers' job should Bill Cowher retire. The denial came in response to a story in the Tampa Tribune. So who should replace Cowher if he does indeed leave after the season? For continuity's sake, I'd choose Ken Whisenhunt. He'd probably promote Bruce Arians or Mark Whipple to OC and keep the defensive staff as is. That works because this is still a young and talented team and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau isn't worried about becoming a head coach again. My No. 2 choice would be Jim Tressel, Ohio State's version of Chuck Noll. The guy's a terrific play-caller and a strong, solid individual. I'm also fond of Big East coaches Rich Rodriguez and Greg Schiano.

I had the pleasure yesterday of interviewing John "Frenchy" Fuqua again. I talked to him last March for my book, "Men of Steel," and back then he predicted that Willie Parker would break his single-game rushing record one day. Parker came within five yards with his 213 against the Saints, so I called Fuqua again for a piece in Steelers Digest. Fuqua said he was in fact watching, and as the game went on he got calls from friends around the country, "as far as California," telling him his record of 218 was going to fall. Fuqua said he wanted Parker to break the record because 37 years was enough, "and it was showing my age." He said he was set to trek to Western Union the next morning to send a telegram, but was disappointed the Steelers didn't try harder to get Parker the record. "I'm quite sure I'll be sending that telegram to him soon enough," the Frenchman said.

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1TinkingShawn:Anthony Spencer as an OLB project?

I was impressed with the Purdue defensive end as well. He had the strength to push Wisky LT Joe Thomas around a bit. I think Spencer's a third or fourth-rounder. My favorite linebackers are USC junior Keith Rivers and Michigan senior David Harris. The former is a lanky, speedy Chip Banks clone who's playing more inside at USC than he should. The latter is an inside backer who's physical enough to play the buck and explosive enough to play the mack. So, to answer your question, yes, Spencer is one of the few interesting 'tweeners I've seen this year, but I'd prefer a linebacker who's played linebacker if I'm taking one in the first round. When anyone sees that there's a Merriman or a Ware out there, please let me know.

SteelBets: Holmes should be taking away time from Nate Washington. His effort (lack thereof) on the interception for a touchdown that was called back should result in him getting his ass chewed out in the film session!

That's the second time I've heard that. I've seen the game three times and don't remember it. Not that I don't trust you, but I'm not watching it a fourth time. But if that's the case, it's the perfect opportunity for the coaches to promote Santonio Holmes, which is inevitable, and teach the young Washington a lesson. But to move Holmes ahead of Cedrick Wilson will take a coach who knows he'll have to deal with a pouting starter after a demotion. I don't know if the great players' coach is up to it right now.

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 20, 11 A.M.

The Pittsburgh papers are full of criticisms while the Cleveland papers looked at the Steelers' come-from-behind win over the Browns as a throwback to a better day. I'm not sure I'm in position to point to either side, but instead fall somewhere in the middle. I'm living in the moment, as they say of Alzheimer's patients, and in the moment I shall stay. This was an entertaining game, as just about all Steelers game have been this season. While they're not getting the breaks, and they're not forcing the breaks, they are playing entertaining football. We want to put our finger on the precise pulse of this team and we want to label it. For instance, last night I clicked on the Channel 4 blab-fest to see if I enjoyed it better since the firing of Mark Madden. Unbelievably, I did not. What used to take 30 seconds to turn off, last night took 15 seconds. In that time one of the panelists was trying to label the Steelers. He had a hard time saying they're okay, but his struggles reflect mine – if I were in a labeling mood.

No, I'm living in the moment. I'm enjoying these playoff games, because that's what they are. Just because the Browns weren't whipped by the 41-0 score the title-bound Steelers laid on them last year does not mean the Steelers are that far removed from their title ways. I just won't believe it. I'll blame circumstances before I blame talent. The talent level just isn't that far off, and speaking of which it's nice to see Santonio Holmes and Ryan Clark coming on strong. They're two of the replacements. Najeh Davenport is another, but his injury, the bane of his football existence, may have shattered that. Otherwise I see a team with similar strengths – run defense, quarterback, defensive playmaker, will to win, offensive weapons – and the same weaknesses – right guard, cornerback, lack of a true pass-rusher, kick coverage – as I saw last year. So I can't pin this team down. So what? I'm just going to enjoy these playoff games while I can. There's another one next week. Don't get bogged down in trying to understand the slip from championship caliber, because these games are just too darn entertaining.

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JustStillin: This victory was even better than last year's clubbing. Why? The fans and the players had high hopes and then the bottom fell out. The Steelers came back and stuck the dagger.

I'm JustStillin in the moment too. The Browns are definitely better. And they came in with a better game plan. I expected them to throw, throw, throw because of their weakened running game, and it appeared as if the Steelers expected it, too. But the Browns didn't do something so stupid because Charlie Frye will never be able to win a game like that, particularly with that offensive line. And the Browns played the Steelers' run game pretty well. No wonder they had high expectations; they're definitely better and they were certainly more inspired than they were last year.

stillerfreak: Jim Tressel is for real. If Cowher did leave I would love for the Steelers to get him. I know it is just a dream. He has the ability to judge the tempo of the game and make adjustments on the fly and, he calls his own plays. wow. As for big games, his record speaks for itself.

I can't think of a better college coach. And I assume he'd be able to make the jump to the pros. Of course, it's most likely wishful thinking for many reasons, but the hiring of Jim Tressel would bring back a Chuck Noll-style as compared to Cowher the players coach. I would welcome the change and believe it would work. P.S. Jon Gruden had to dismiss a report in a Tampa paper that he's interested in a potential Steelers opening. Well, even if he didn't come out and say it, everyone understands it. Heck, everyone wants it. As I've said before, it's the best job in all of football, Notre Dame included.

txBlitz: 43 missled down the field to stop the fleet Edwards at the 15. Kids that is how football is intended to be played. In fact that is how life is meant to be lived. Never give up, give your all, and you will be rewarded. I am reminded of a great John Facenda line about Jim Brown, "I thought Superman had an S on his shirt, but today he wore 32 instead." Superman was wearing 43, and watching him fly down the field faster than a locomotive, with hair jetting in the breeze is something all Steeler fans should recognize and be thankful. That play characterized the Steelers heart and soul, and Troy I applaud you.

I have nothing to add.

CrispyRat: Somehow, I thought it poetic justice Cedrick Wilson drew an offensive pass interference call on a nice grab. Sure, it rarely gets called, and I have seen worse, but his constant belly-aching about non-calls sickens me. He has become the Danny Ainge of football and it makes me ill.

Well put, and it makes me consider the next logical step: Should Holmes start over Wilson? I think the time has come, but I wonder whether the coaching staff worries about Wilson disrupting chemistry as a second-teamer.

Rockpile: Don't tell me team chemistry will suffer in Holmes takes over as the starter. Wilson can play the slot or the bench.

Okay. Just thinking out loud.

Tyranid: What do the insiders think about Hartings play today? The running game had some meager pickings. Will they ever put together a good running game away from Heinz?

I can't understand their lack of success on the road this year. I asked Willie Parker about it and he said things would be different in Cleveland. They were not. As for Hartings, I didn't notice any success or failures. He said hitting Ted Washington was like hitting a wall and it looked like it because the wall didn't push back, it just stood. Maybe I didn't watch close enough (and that may be due to the Steelers' inordinate amount of passes) but I couldn't judge either way.

Tyranid: Thank God for Frye.. otherwise the Steelers would be 3-7. As much as I dislike Brady Quinn's pocket awareness, he would make a good Brownie 1st round pick.

My guess is the Browns will win a few more games and be out of range for Quinn. Now, Troy Smith in the second round might make some sense for them.

SteelMagnolias: I was actually glad that Willie was in the game during the final drives vs Davenport. I thought Willie should have been in during the 2 minute offense to end the half as well. When, playing catch-up I rather have the faster/playmaker on the field.

Let's hope the coaches agree with you and I on this. Parker converted a third-and-11 and then scored the touchdown, and this after being pulled on plays such as a second-and-six. Mix Davenport in on early downs if you're worried about wearing Parker out. And when you do mix Parker in on third downs to keep defenses honest, change up the play call so he doesn't get the quarterback killed in pass pro – or even flare him out. If he doesn't take the blitzing linebacker with him, he should be open.

AST11: Wasn't that Troy at the end jumping up and tipping that ball away?

Yes. And Troy was also the first one to touch the first-half Hail Mary, too, although I think Ike Taylor had more to do with that pass falling incomplete. This was another brilliant game by Polamalu, just as YukMonkey had predicted.

txBlitz: I thought Harris played the best of any defender in that [Michigan-Ohio State]game. Branch was rock solid, and Woodley was pretty darned good, but those three step drops are a bitch for DL. Michigan had more talent, but Carr is to Michigan what John Cooper was to Ohio State, and the personal foul called killed Michigan. I was more than a little impressed with OSU's offense. Smith deserves the Heisman. I was surprised that the OSU line did as well as they did. Wells and Pittman allowed OSU a lot more balance than I thought they could get. I thought Hart was better than advertised. Manningham is impressive. I thought Henne was ok. Where was Breaston? And Jake Long got worked on more than a few occasions.

I was with you all the way up until your comment on Jake Long. I thought he had a tremendous game. He stoned Kendrick Golston all game. Folks are raving about the OSU underclass pass-rusher but his only successes came against the Michigan weak links: LG and RT. Long looks like Jimbo Covert as a run-blocker, but he needs more consistency in pass pro and that's why he'll fall further than the great LT from Pitt did, although Long is a lead-pipe first-rounder. In re-watching this game closely, I believe Michigan would win a rematch on a neutral field because both of their lines are better and they'd coach better. Running the ball should've been a Michigan strength but the coach panicked. As an underdog on a neutral field, Lloyd Carr would go for more fourth-and-ones. I think. John Cooper never did un-Big Ten his style, but I think Carr, since this loss gives Michigan little to lose, would.

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 10:55 A.M.

Ah, that's better. The daughter's off to school and the wife is off to work; the homestead is all mine and there goes the new CD, "Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live at the Fillmore East." It's just-released but from a 1970 concert, and it's real Crazy Horse, with Danny Whitten, who would die of a heroin overdose two years later -- or, as we say in the future, 34 years ago tomorrow. Neil wrote him up in "Needle and the Damage Done" and hasn't found a partner like him since. I had most of this CD already on a bootleg, and it's a shame they didn't put "Cinnamon Girl" on this one. I'm not a fan of Top 10 hits, but this song deserves to be heard again – with Neil and Danny singing harmony and playing together live – by the masses, who won't appreciate the highlight -- "Cowgirl in the Sand" – here. Anyway, thanks for obliging me on a 36-year-old concert. It's just that every time I think about back home it's cool and breezy.

My car antenna broke off a couple years ago, so the only time I can listen to radio is during the drive from the Steelers' practice facility to the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. In that time last night I listened to a sports talk show on Fox 970. The subject of Hall of Famers was broached and Mike Prisuta said that his Hall of Famers from the just-released list of 25 semifinalists are Russ Grimm, Clay Matthews and Thurman Thomas. Joe Bendel said his Hall of Famer is Art Modell. Bob Labriola did not make a pick, at least before I drove out of range, so I was stunned that no one chose Dermontti Dawson. In looking over the list, I jotted down Lester Haynes, Bruce Matthews and Art Monk as kinda's, but Dawson is truly the name that jumps off the list. I've never seen a lineman with his athletic ability, feet or hands. Nor have I seen a football player – and I'm including Jerome Bettis – with his type of class. This guy should be a lead-pipe lock and I'll gladly be the first in the local media to take up the cause.

I swear, when I watch Darelle Revis I'm watching a future Hall of Famer. Yeah, I'm jumping the gun here, but he has that aura. I really think he's special. And not just because of that outrageous punt return, or his down-to-the-gun motor and perfectionism, or the fact that nobody throws to his side unless you have a lot of guts and you think you can surprise him deep on fourth-and-one (and he was right there, and smartly – Hall of Famerly – dropped the interception), it's the way he interacts with teammates and the way he doesn't celebrate a big play, the way he thinks only about the next play. This guy is class all the way. Yes, he could've tackled Slaton below the head, and you worry about his 40 time, still I believe he dropped out of Steelers-draft range with his play last night. He may only be a 4.5 guy, but did you see the size of those legs? He has a unique build for a cornerback, and a build I again compare to Ty Law – his Aliquippa forefather. Law was the 23rd player chosen in the 1995 draft by the Patriots. I figure Revis to go about 15-18 – unless he does something stupid like run a 4.3 40.

Speaking of the draft, I see Scout.com is coming around to my quarterback, JaMarcus Russell. Funny, I get mad when they ignore my favorite players, and then I get mad when they like them. I'm sick that way. I want all the credit for all the guys, up or down.

Stat of the day from a Gerry Dulac story in the Post-Gazette: Clark Haggans (3) and Joey Porter (2) have combined for five quarterback pressures this season. Reserve defensive lineman Travis Kirschke has four.

College stats of the day: 1.) West Virginia rushed for 373 yards in the second half last night against Pitt; 2.) sophomores Steve Slaton and Pat White combined for 435 rushing yards in the entire game, with Slaton adding 130 more on six receptions. Pitt Coach Dave Wannstedt said: "We weren't surprised by the plays they did, we just didn't do a good job of stopping them." In other words, the coaching was good but the players weren't. Yes, I figure that's the case, Dave, but don't say it out loud. Look, I'm believing in you, that you'll turn this thing around, but for a guy with a lot of class, how about showing it?

As expected, the Cleveland Plain Dealer expanded on Browns owner Randy Lerner telling a Cleveland TV station, off the record, that he's enamored with the idea of Bill Cowher coaching the Browns. It was a pretty flat column though (as flat as a blogger not linking to it). The only news worth reporting is Dan Rooney's quote: "Cleveland's got a good operation and a good coach. You can't be changing every two years." Bang on, dude. While I believe Cowher to be a quality coach, I wouldn't be busting up a new plan for him. James Farrior, for one, is a big Romeo Crennel fan. He couldn't stop praising him the other day. The two were with the Jets together; Crennel coached the defensive line.

There are some injuries that might shake up the division. Ray Lewis had blood drained from his back (similar to a knee being drained) and hopes to return for next week's game against the Steelers. Replacing him is 270-pound D-lineman Jarret Johnson. Cincinnati's consistent RG Bobby Williams underwent an appendectomy and will be replaced by everyone's favorite project from the 2004 draft, track star Stacy Andrews, a.k.a. Shawn's older brother. And the Browns look like they'll be without RB Reuben Droughns, who has a foot injury. They'll use Jason Wright, who isn't much of a running threat but is tougher in short yardage and a better blitzer-picker-upper. A key injury for the Steelers could be fullback Dan Kreider (hip). He'd be replaced by John Kuhn, whom I like better as a tailback than as a lead blocker.

Mark Madden is blaming the Steelers for getting him fired from Channel 4's Sunday night blab-fest, when he should instead blame himself. There's no censoring going on here, it was just Hines Ward putting his foot down. He wouldn't talk to Channel 4 reporters and they asked why. He told them because they employ a cheap-shot artist who doesn't have the courage to show up in the locker room and face the music whenever he drives his ratings up with inanities. I applaud Ward's stance.

In the big game I look for Michigan to pull off the upset. Yes, Troy Smith and his receivers concern me. Yes, Michigan's weakness is its secondary (and yes, I like Leon Hall and hope he runs a 4.2 40 so someone drafts him instead of Revis). Yes, Ohio State is at home and the betting line has remained a solid -7 (and bucks my theory of: If you have to ask why, go with it), but Michigan will stuff Ohio State's running game. That is a certainty. And then they might pressure and break down the (sub?) 6-foot-0 quarterback. If the latter doesn't occur, Michigan still has the capability to score with Ohio State. Mario Manningham is back with a game under his belt, the O-line's better than the home team's, and the QB is considered a better pro prospect than Smith. And the back, the back has Walter Payton heart. I love that little back. Watch him block. So even if Troy Smith does have another big day, the Michigan offense could match him. And there's the seven just in case it falls a bit short.

Today's best of the message boards

Jdam86: Polamalu seems like on of those guys whose kinda tough to interview..alot of 1-3 word answers, that being said I'm relieved and happy as hell that he's ok and going to play!!!

Troy can be deep and interesting as well, but this was one of those gang-bang sessions that dealt with an injury, and the players are mindful that Bill Cowher hates when they discuss injuries. I appreciated his brevity. It challenges reporters to be more thoughtful with their questions. Guys like Cowher and in particular Hines Ward should do the same. They try to be too helpful with their elaborations but only end up encouraging lazy questioning.

GroveStud: I do not want to see Hartings against big guys. He's good in space, but has trouble with big NT's. Give Okobi a try.

I appreciate your concern, and wonder if this has more to do with chemistry than anything else. Jeff Hartings is a team leader, and since Chukky Okobi hasn't proven anything (or had the chance) against big NTs, it's probably just easier for the coach to put Jeff back in there. I also wonder if Okobi the nice guy has been stereotyped by a coaching staff that doesn't want to get its hands dirty. Every coach at any level will tell you it's easier to bench nice guys.

SteelMagnolias: I really don't see the appeal for keeping [Mark Madden] on the radio. There has to be better talent in the area. There is.

I'll say this: There's no doubting Madden's talent, but I would instead blame the public for listening to his invective. They're the ones driving the ratings in that dysfunctional business. I told Hines he now runs the risk of hearing a lifelong diatribe, similar to that which Jerome Bettis endures. Ward said, "That's fine. Just leave it on his show. Don't be putting it on TV where Deshea's kids can see it after a game." To those not following the story, Madden, in addition to misreporting facts about Ward, called Townsend a jackass and mocked him for pulling off some kind of Chad Scott-like triple play. "And everyone on that panel sat there and laughed with him," Ward said.

ChipTheSteelerFan: I kept telling my wife [referring to Revis] That is my First Round Draft Pick. Did he intentionally drop that INT on 4th down? I don't think so, but it is nice to believe that he did.

Chip, I'm trying to keep you out of this segment just one time but you keep making sense. First of all, you should be recognized for being on the Revis bandwagon early. As for the dropped pick, that's what I told my wife, that he did it intentionally. The only other thing I can add is this: Our poor wives.

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 8:30 A.M.

A great run of birthdays started Saturday with the dual celebration of Samantha Jo Wexell and Fast Willie Parker. I understand that if you're born on Veteran's Day you get three names. Noted triple Scorpio and troubadour for all that is good, Mr. Neil Young, held his birthday on Sunday. And today is my 46th birthday. So, to save anyone from having to say it, it's happy birthday to me! To celebrate I will try to find out today if Troy Polamalu can play football on Sunday, and then if he can cover Kellen Winslow. I will also try to find out if James Harrison can play, and then if he can cover Joshua Cribbs on kickoffs and punts. And I will also try to find out from F.W.P. if he can run for 100 yards on any other field beside Heinz Field. That's perhaps one of the reasons the Steelers haven't won on the road yet.

After our radio show last night, I was a guest on the Orange and Brown Report radio show in Cleveland. They didn't seem to think Braylon Edwards's comment was a big deal. They wondered whether the Steelers are thinking they have an easy one this week; at least that's what they were hoping for. Their smiles turned when I told them the Steelers will take anyone seriously at this point, that they've had too much trouble from everyone and have too much respect for anyone at this point, that they haven't won on the road yet, that the playoffs are definitely within reach to the winner of this game, and that any thought the Browns had of the Steelers being satisfied off a win, of being confident from the 41-0 win last year, or of looking ahead to the showdown the following week at Baltimore, that any possibility of any of that went out the window when Edwards exulted after the Browns' win in Atlanta Sunday by saying, in effect, to bring on the Steelers. The moment of silence on the air was broken when the host of the show said, "Thanks, Braylon."

To borrow once again from Jim Mora the elder, "Playoffs?!" Yes, just look at the standings. The Steelers are two games behind four teams for the second wildcard spot. At 5-4 are the Chiefs, Jets and Jags, and at 4-5 are the Bengals. With AFC record in parentheses, the Chiefs (1-4) host the Broncos; the Jets (4-4) host the Bears; the Jags (3-3) host the Giants; and the Bengals (3-3) travel to play the Saints. The winner of the Steelers-Browns will move up a game on at least half, if not all, of those teams, so, yes, I'm excited about covering the team for my birthday. Okay, to the boards.

Today's best of the message board

Blitz36:I am waiting to hear, Bill, if you score more points than the Browns this week, do you think you'll win?\

The actual question you're mocking, and with justification, is: "How important is it to get positive yards?" Yes, that was unbelievable, but I'll let Paul Alexander keep his Butt-Smoocher Question of the Week award a third consecutive week with this non-question to open the Cowher press conference: "Coaches often say that there's something about practicing after a win that makes things easier." Cowher should've nodded and moved on.

Curly:Moss, asked Monday about dropping more passes than usual this season, said perhaps his lack of happiness has affected his play.

He may lack happiness, but Randy Moss hasn't seemed to have run out of crack. Man, he looks bad this year.

SteelChowder:Has Chukky been outplaying Hartings? It seemed like the sacks came between the guards and tackles BUT the guards were blocking in towards Okobi on some of them. Willie has the great rushing game BUT the big runs are on the edge. What do you think?

I thought Chukky played well and has improved his stock significantly. The first sack was a blitz through right guard as Simmons helped block the middle. Russ Grimm spoke to him afterward so I assume that was on Simmons. He gave up the second one for sure. The rushes on the edge started in the middle. Alan Faneca made two great blocks on the first run; he sealed the edge at two levels; and the second one looked like Max Starks helped the most by blocking the corner down.

SirSteroid:here's the 2007 steeler ist rd pick!!!! Meet LaMarr Woodley, Big time producer at big time program.

I like this guy a lot but don't see him as a 3-4 OLB, unless he loses some weight. Otherwise, he looks like a smallish 4-3 end with a great motor. I could envision him as a buck linebacker, like Levon Kirkland, but as I said he'd have to lose weight. The guy I think would be a better Steelers fit is Michigan MLB David Harris. He reminds me of Kendrell Bell with his suddenness, but with the slim pickings this year I doubt he'll last till the middle of the second round. As for the Michigan-Ohio State game, I really like Michigan. I think this is their year. They have the better defense and the better running back and the better offensive line. Their quarterback isn't too shabby either, and with Mario Manningham back their passing game is close to Ohio State's. I like Michigan in the upset and then to go on to win the national title. But that weak, weak Big 10 schedule has to be a concern, particularly if they go up against one of those schedule-toughened SEC teams.

MONDAY, NOV. 13, 12:45 P.M.

Sorry so late today. I've gotten off to a slow start. I stepped in some dog dirt down at my daughter's bus stop. I cleaned up and tried to hold a smile while the children laughed at me. But while that was going on, I thought of Braylon Edwards. Yeah, I thought of what he himself stepped into yesterday. The Browns beat the Falcons, and Edwards – who has two career catches against the Steelers – said of them: "We're coming after their [tails]."

At least that's how the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote it up in a short sidebar. Don't look for it. Here's the rest of the quoted material: "You don't beat somebody 41-0 at their own house. We're coming for the Steelers. That's point-blank, period." And this: "You can't get beat like that and not come back the following game thinking about that game. It's not a situation where you say the past is the past. No, the hell with that."

Now, I've seen Edwards play this year. He short-arms passes over the middle because, I think, he's afraid. Man, what a dumb thing for an afraid guy to say. This just made the Steelers underdogs – in their minds – and that's how they prefer it. Braylon, do you hear the children laughing? Yeah, bad start to the day is right.

I wore my Chicago White Sox ballcap this summer until the very last day they were eliminated and every day it made me proud. If I hadn't reported this earlier, I was born in Chicago and moved to Pittsburgh -- by way of Fort Wayne and Buffalo -- in the eighth grade. One of my great uncles played for the 1919 Black Sox. He was booted off the team because he refused to pitch in place of Cicotte when he was stopped by ownership from pitching for his 30th win of the regular season and the big bonus (thus the trigger to the World Series dive). He's a family legend and I have all kinds of stuff about the 1919 Black Sox in my house. And doesn't that just show you what kind of person you're dealing with here. But anyway, I wore that hat proudly, and so I just pulled out my Super Bowl hat. It feels reeeaaal comfortable. I don't want to hear about won-loss records or standings today. It's a win and there are seven weeks left, at least, in the season. Strut like a champion today.

Sorry, more egocentric drivel: My uncle and cousins visited this summer and we went to the PNC Park to see the White Sox-Pirates game. In the last inning we went down to the empty fifth-row seats and stood for the final strike. Some guy yells out, "Sit down. Sit down. Who won the Super Bowl? Remember 21-9?"

I turned around with a smile and said, I was at the Super Bowl, too. And it was 21-10.

Yes, 2005 was a very good year.

I just figured it out: The Steelers beat the Bears, 21-9.

I also just figured out this out: Since Braylon Edwards just made the club an underdog, he's made it easier for them; Steelers 31, Browns 17.

Today's best of the message boards

Txblitz: Wex, you are too old school to enjoy a game with over 900 yards, very few defensive stops. I thought Porter had a very good game, but he was in coverage most of the day. His play on the swing pass to McAlister was impressive, and may have been the difference in the game. Is it time to bring back Barr, because Gardocki and his thirty yard shanks suck?

Porter saved them at least four points on that stop of McAllister, and his pass breakup on a third-down pass to Marques Colston may have saved more when the Saints had a 24-17 lead. But he didn't get any pressure, again, and that was the thrust of my criticism in my notes column in Steelers Digest. It wasn't just second-year tackle Jammal Brown who stoned him, but tight ends and fullbacks. The fullback moved Porter at will on the double reverse touchdown. Porter has also been stoned by tackles Erik Pears, Marcus McNeill and Robert Gallery. He is, however, stout against the run and as mentioned smart and quick enough in coverage. I just wanted to give him some shots in the Digest because he'll read them. I also threw a shot in there at Alan Faneca, just to thump the leaders on both sides of the ball, but the fact is Faneca played his best game since the Kansas City game. Hmm. I wonder if there's a coincidence there.

Oh, yeah, Barr v. Gardocki. Yes, the club could use a big leg back there, but Barr was given every chance to win the job and he just didn't grab it. His leg was strong, and he did alright, but not enough to overcome the intangibles a veteran like Gardocki brings. That was the right decision, but don't think the club isn't looking. They showed us they were last training camp.

Steeler2695: I don't watch Pitt football so I know zilch about [Darelle Revis] but I've noted that you've made very positive comments about him a few times. If he is that good, I would hope that they would take him. If one could look into the future and see that he would be the next Rod Woodson or Mel Blount, I think it would be silly to pass on him, regardless of how much money or high draft picks have been invested in the position.

By the numbers in your insignia, my guess is you're the former Rush-and-Cover of message-board fame. Revis is more like Ty Law than Woodson or Blount, and that's why I think he'll be available in the middle of the first round. He's a savvy playmaker but he won't "pop" at the combine, thus should be available. However, with Porter's contract up after 2007, it's the perfect time to draft an OLB and groom him for a year, particularly since they need pass rushing just as badly as they do coverage men. The OLB I like is USC junior Keith Rivers, but I haven't watched him in awhile. I also like Ole Miss's Patrick Willis. He's got a big body and can move. I did read that USC DE Lawrence Jackson had a big game against Oregon this past Saturday. The Steelers had been scouting that junior and he finally broke out with three sacks. But I'm not sure he's an OLB or would fatten up to DE in the Steelers' 3-4. I do like his agility for his size.

ChipTheSteelerFan: Cowher and Spencer have taken a lot of heat on this board. So has Grimm. Whis has taken a little. But the two no one has mentioned and I think they deserve their share are Ray Horton and Darren Perry. Our secondary is awful. Colston had over 100 yards receiving in the first half.

Patience. Those two are young coaches. Patience, my friend. Perry is the heir apparent as defensive coordinator, and then Horton moves up from CB coach to DB coach. It's a good plan, Chip. Don't be wreck it with your logic.

Tyranid: CB is a need certainly, but a S that can cover TEs, knock WRs crossing over the middle out, and get INTs is someone we need just as much if not more.

Again, I stress patience. Sunday was Anthony Smith's first real action in the secondary. They targeted him in the draft and took him in the third round after scouting him all season. Give him a chance. And as for delivering big hits, Tyrone Carter forced two fumbles (even though Larry Foote got misplaced credit for one) in relief of the concussed Troy Polamalu. That's not too shabby.

steelmann58: Has Chukky Okobi showed enough To make Hartings expendable next year?

I don't know about that, but his play has allayed my fears. At this point, after playing a couple 4-3 teams without a true nose, his performances against Gerard Warren and Hollis Thomas have been encouraging. He's strong enough, has decent mobility and a ton of energy. The two sacks given up appeared to both be Kendall Simmons's fault, so, yeah, Chukky at least leaves me feeling like there's no need to look at college centers this year. As for taking over for Hartings, Okobi at least gives the team flexibility in case Hartings retires or must be released for cap purposes. Of course, there's also rookie Marv Philip and Simmons to compete at center.

Steelmann 58: Give Cowher credit. He put Davenport back on KR and he gave the Steelers great starting position.

I probably don't give Bill Cowher enough credit at times, but he's a big boy and he doesn't need credit for this. Now, Quincy Morgan, yes, because he'd never returned kickoffs, but Davenport had. Now, I just want to see Hines Ward returning punts. If Davenport's size helps him on returns, the same would go for Ward.

Frozensteel: I'm waiting for a new rule in which you have to serve the opposing QB a subpeona giving them notice that you would like them to lay down rather than be allowed to tackle them.

I wish I'd have written that.

jamesgoldbond: Why does everyone always want to take FWP's long runs away? You can't! It doesn't matter what his average is without them. If you take EVERY RB's long runs in this league their Carry Average is minimal. I will never understand this at all, but it continues even after he practically single handedly won this game for us.

I have fun in the pressbox with John Steigerwald on this one. We both agree and we're both sick of hearing about it. Willie Parker must be game-planned for because of his ability to break the big ones. Same reason the Steelers were so preoccupied with Reggie Bush; speed kills.

ChipTheSteelerFan: Wex, that [Pitt] game wasn't televised here. How did Revis do? I know the Steelers won't think outside the box and draft Alan Branch to play OLB, so Revis is most likely my first round pick. Revis is practically a non-entity in televised Pitt games because no one throws to his side. Would you when there are 10 Panthers to pick on? Revis, I believe, was hurt in the fourth quarter of this past game against UConn. He was helped off the field and I didn't see him again, although none of the papers reported on this. As for Alan Branch, now, you know I respect your eye, Chip, but this one's way out there. Branch will never be a linebacker. He's way too big. He's either a NT or a 4-3 DT. I think it would even be a stretch to make him into a 3-4 end. But I suspect the Steelers will draft a linebacker for the first time in the first round under … Cowher?

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 8:30 A.M.

Now THAT was a game for which Big East football fans can be proud. Somebody hit somebody this week, as opposed to that Holiday Bowl that passed for a showdown last Thursday night. I've enjoyed watching undersized but quick and well-coached Rutgers all season. Even without much of a passing game, Rutgers pulled off the upset and is now in line to be ignored by the voters who'd just allowed Louisville into their top five. Really, I don't believe Rutgers could win a big-time bowl game but it would be fun watching. As for the prospects, FB-TE-RB-HB Bryan Leonard would be a perfect fit for the Steelers, but it would have to be in the second round at the earliest. He just doesn't do one thing well enough for the first round. The guy I really enjoyed watching – and I mentioned him on our draft message board – was No. 63, RG Cameron Stephenson. He's a former defensive lineman and he gets better every time I watch him. He has great strength and can move well enough to lead the Steelers' sweeps and counters. Nasty player, he dominated Lousivlle's Amobi Okoye just about every time he had the opportunity. Stephenson's a guy to keep an eye on in Rutgers' bowl game.

After Thursday's practice, I asked Bill Cowher if he had come to a decision on lineup changes. Of course, we in the media had already reported that Bryant McFadden would replace Ike Taylor. Some of us used words like "apparently" in deference to the Steelers' request that we not report on any lineup change we see in practice, and that's understandable. Our game is to leave the field and try to lead one of the players into admitting there was a change on the field. Then, it's fair game. Ike Taylor said he was told by coaches he'd have to fight his way back to first team. That was good enough for some, who wrote that the change was made. I still used the word "apparently" and hoped I didn't insult the reader's intelligence. Anyway, here's what Cowher said the next day when asked about the promised changes: "I'm not ready to discuss any and you ought to be careful about reading into too many things. I think a lot of those things will be game-day decisions." Okay, so the game lives on. Cowher still wants New Orleans coaches to wonder about the real starter at LCB, so he maintains there haven't been any firm lineup changes made, although McFadden said after the press conference that all systems are still go … apparently.

I heard on this morning's news that me and the rest of the reporters were surprised to hear Cowher say he's "leaning to" using Santonio Holmes on punt returns. I'm not surprised. I saw Cedrick Wilson carrying his two punt returns Sunday the same way he carried the reception that he eventually fumbled at the Denver 3. I thought the only other option – other than the hilarious Deshea Townsend (that's what he and Cowher were yukking about on the sideline) – was Hines Ward, but that even wasn't very realistic. I asked Hines if he could, and he said that, yes, he could, and then I asked him if he would, and he said that, no, he wouldn't, and I asked why and he said, because I haven't done it in so long. I guess he has that option, and I hope the many Ward haters on the internets don't pick it up and run with it, but that's how it goes … or went.

Speaking of calling all special-teamers, I was interviewing Brett Keisel about the Saints' offensive line when Ben Roethlisberger came by dribbling a soccer ball. On his way by he said to me, "He should be playing linebacker," to which I replied, How about special teams? "No, linebacker," Roethlisberger said, and then he was gone. So I asked Keisel, What about playing special teams?

BK: We need a spark, some type of spark.

Me: Do you have to volunteer or are you off-limits because you're a starter?

BK: Probably.

Me: Does Cowher put you off limits?

BK: I think so. I think they want me fresh for defense. I'm out there on return but they don't have me covering any kind of kicks.

Me: Do you want to volunteer?

BK: They know. If the time comes and they need me they know I'm ready. They keep me fresh on punt. I'm always the backup there and always the backup on kickoff just in case something happens and I have to do that, because we do have a lot of depth on D-line. If I get fatigued guys can come in who know what they're doing.

Well, the Steelers need someone to put the fear of God in opposing return teams. It doesn't look like Keisel's the answer this week, but James Harrison will be back next week.

I know, it might be too late next week. Someone named Jimmy Shapiro – sounds Vegas-oriented, doesn't it? – e-mailed one of the writers some of the odds that he has. The Steelers are 80-1 to win the Super Bowl, which I thought was a bit slight, considering their odds of finishing as the worst defending Super Bowl champ (according to Shapiro) are: bet 100 to win a measly 120 on a 6-10 finish; bet 100 to win 130 on a 5-11 finish; and bet 100 to win 160 on a 7-9 or better finish. I'd jump all over the 100-160 for 7-9 or better. Shapiro also lists the odds on Cowher staying at 100 to win 150, and 200 to win 100 on him leaving.

Today's best of the message boards

Textmex: On a serious note, Wex, no offense but it seems like you've gotten a little bit reactionary this year.

Maybe I am a bit skittish. Maybe I'm trying to do too much. Maybe I just wasn't ready for the intensity of my foes in defending my championship. I think I've learned in the first half and will have a much better second half. In fact, I guarantee I'll write a good column this Sunday.

Textmex: I thought Taylor was generally playing well this year. I didn't realize the team was down on him. Has that been reported on this site before now?

I didn't realize the team was down on him, either, but when the move was made I was not surprised. Ike has better tools than Deshea, but Deshea's more reliable. And, sadly, no, I had not written this opinion earlier. I think Ike's a reader here and may have lacked the guts this first half to do the right thing. So mark me down for lacking courage and being skittish … although I think they're the same thing.

ChipTheSteelerFan: Wex, why didn't you ask Joey who was the last LT he beat for a sack?

Do I have to say I'm a coward again? Sigh … you are right. Porter isn't doing much and perhaps that should've been brought up. To continue this thought, I'll defer to …

Stillerfreak: If you talk the talk you have to walk the walk. I'll give Joey this one game. I think we all should.

I also liked "Shut up and play."

Tyranid: Why isn't he calling his probowlers out? Ike is a 2nd year starter. Why make an example for him? Where's Faneca? Hartings? et. al.? What about Ben and Peezy? Why aren't these guys getting benched?

Without breaking down the pros and cons of the four players mentioned here, Ike will still be on the field much of the time as a dime back. It's really not much of a demotion and he has a great chance to make play or two to return to good graces. Faneca and Ben wouldn't have that opportunity on the bench, unless Cowher makes the bold (and some might say necessary) move of Ben to wedge-buster.

Dilpreet: What happened to the weekly Ben interview this week?

We didn't think anyone was reading it anymore. And this one was particularly dull and particularly embarrassing for the butt-smooching media. Sorry. Dale and I will discuss a possible continuation.

Dilpreet: not even gonna waste my time reading this anymore, same [expletive] every week

Cowher's press conference isn't all that much different than Ben's, is it? Have a great weekend, folks. And, as always, thanks for reading.

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 8

It took me a few days to getting around to watching the film on TiVo and was pleasantly surprised. The offensive line didn't play near as bad as I'd thought after watching the game live. The sack Max Starks gave up on the first series must've stuck with me, but Starks had a decent game. Chukky Okobi also had a good game, but it should be noted that Denver doesn't have the massive defensive tackle that causes the Steelers' interior trouble. Marvel Smith is taking the heat for this game, but Smith, except for a hiccup or two, played well. The running game, when used, was quality and Ben Roethlisberger, in spite of his interceptions, was twice the decision-maker he'd been the previous week. The problem was turnovers and the cornerbacks, and the biggest problem with the corners was the outstanding pair of wide receivers playing for Denver. On draft day, while the Steelers were spending a first, third and fourth on Santonio Holmes, the Broncos were making a 1996-Jerome Bettis-style move by trading a second for Javon Walker. The Steelers should've trumped that offer, but even I, second-guessing assassin, didn't second-guess them on it until now. What a great move by the Broncos.

Bill Cowher said at his press conference that he's considering lineup changes. My best guess is Bryant McFadden for Deshea Townsend at cornerback and Santonio Holmes for Cedrick Wilson at split end. It's a good time to make the move with each player. McFadden has a chance to become this team's lead corner and Holmes should help open up the field. With Wilson at split end, there was not deep threat. A caller to our Tuesday night radio show on Fox 970 AM (a show this web site could take hostage if it wants) suggested moving Hines Ward to punt returner and I agreed with him. I think the first appearance of Ward back to receive would put a charge in the team and the crowd. Everyone would appreciate the playmaking aspect of it, but also it would show that Cowher is still thinking, still coaching. It's a logical move, if and only if Ward doesn't get hurt. I'd take the risk at this point. If Ward isn't the answer – because Wilson certainly wasn't with that ball hanging loosely STILL – there's a player on the waiver wire, Chad Owens, who was the nation's best punt returner, a record-setter, a few years ago at Hawaii. The Jaguars just let him go.

The Butt Smooch Question of the Week Award for Cowher's press conference was this beauty: "Coach, there's probably not a lot you haven't dealt with as a football coach. Is this new to you?" Cowher, of course, took the opportunity to agree with said Butt Smoocher. But, only three years ago Cowher and the Steelers started 2-6 on their way to 6-10. How quickly the Butt Smoochers forget.

Three of the four top rookie receivers will be at Heinz Field on Sunday. Holmes is fourth with 22 receptions. First is running back Reggie Bush with 46 receptions. Neither is a legitimate contender for Rookie of the Year at this point, since Holmes has five fumbles and Bush is averaging 2.6 yards per carry. No, the better contender is New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston, a seventh-round draft pick and a guy the Steelers should've done a better job scouting since he's from Hofstra, from where they drafted Willie Colon in the fourth round. Colston, a 6-foot-4, 231-pounder, was taken with the 252nd pick of the draft. Last week, with opposite starter Joe Horn out, Colston picked up the slack with 11 catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. He made five third-down catches and for the season has moved the chains 31 times. Even if he becomes Rookie of the Year, Colston won't surpass Jimmy Orr of the Steelers as the latest-drafted rookie to win it. Orr was drafted 291st and won the award in 1958.

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ThunderEagle: Just out of curiosity, do you catch a lot of grief after writing an article like that (on Duce Staley), or do most of the guys realize you have a job to do and figure if they were winning, articles like that wouldn't be written?

When I rip them in Steelers Digest, I catch some grief, but otherwise the guys don't like to admit they read the sports pages. This article will end up in the team's clip packet, but I'm not expecting any grief, not at 2-6.

SteelinGa: IT AIN'T OVER TILL IT'S OVER! Last year should have proven that to all of us. There is still a chance at greatness.

I like when one of the team's most realistic critics remains optimistic. It says something, and I'm not disagreeing. I felt a surge of adrenaline when Cowher guaranteed – then backed off – a win over the Saints. As I said, I watched the Denver game again. I think once you're over the shock of them losing to Jake Plummer and falling to 2-6, you can see that they played some pretty good football. The turnovers just can't keep happening, can they? No. And the Ravens can't keep winning, can they? No. So as long as grizzled vets like SteelinGa aren't throwing in the towel, neither will I.

SteelApple: Other than that, I thought Ben looked accurate, decisive and a bit like his old scrambling self.

Upon further review, I agree. In fact, I was surprised. I thought he was skittish watching the game live, but on review he appeared decisive and in charge, much different than the previous week. It must be true that concussions affect quarterbacks for about a week.

ChipTheSteelerFan: What kind of motivator do you get the players and coaches who have won it all?

Fast Willie Parker. As Bob Smizik said in his column today, from the mouths of babes ...

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 6

Week after week I write in these spaces that the Steelers really are a good team, that they'd come around and make some kind of run, but I'm done. This team stinks and I'm embarrassed that I'd been fooled for so long. Apparently I'm not the only one. Jerome Bettis, on his "Football Night in America" show, said: "They're not coming around and they're not a better football team. … The Pittsburgh Steelers are a bad football team right now." So I'm running even with the sunny and optimistic former player. Call me "Sunny Jim" at the bottom-ly.

The most depressing aspect of the win is the state of the big picture. Last week I lamented the fact that the offensive line, still young and comprised of high draft picks, may need an overhaul. Well, that depressing thought now extends to the secondary, where a young, recently re-signed Ike Taylor looked like a young, recently re-signed future backup. Two second-round picks have also been used to draft cornerbacks the last three years and it appears there's little to show back there. The most important positions beside quarterback are cornerback and offensive tackle and the Steelers have nothing there. That's depressing, and not just in a They'll-bounce-back-after-this-hangover way. This could be a long-term illness.

The Post-Gazette had the most insightful quotes from the locker room. Willie Parker said, "Last year we were getting the job done, we just seemed hungrier. This year, it seems like we already got what we want, what's the use? What's the use of going out there and selling out?" Trust that Parker is not one of those types, at least consciously. But that's what a Super Bowl hangover is all about. Deep down, this is really not a big deal to team members because the rings are already in the vault. Parker is one of the greatest effort guys I've been around. And he really loves this team after coming out of a college program that threw him to the curb. It meant something for him to speak his mind that way.

And then there was Najeh Davenport. Coming out of the closet known as Green Bay, Davenport had this to say to the Tribune-Review: "There's a difference losing here and losing where I was. Losing where I was, you could feel false motivation in the second quarter when you were down 21 points. Here, I don't get that. I don't sense that. … There were a couple things that happened, any other team it would turn you against each other. Not here."

Great. So the Steelers are learning how to lose. Thanks, Najeh.

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Tannybrown: When taking out the 2006 season on my household pet, is it better to use my belt or a knotted up extension cord?

I'm old school. I was raised with a belt smacking my rear end. But, hey, the knotted up extension cord sounds interesting. I hadn't considered it. Thanks for the idea.

Txblitz: I think this is what happens when you don't use preseason to establish your team and set your roles.

That's the problem coming off a championship. Even Belichick was "a nice guy" at that first camp back. It's inevitable. But it's so easy to see in hindsight. When you allow a Duce Staley to make the team after flat out losing a camp competition, you have nothing as a coach and leader. You're showing the rest of the team that you don't really have to beat out the next guy at your position. Someone wrote a great post that I can't find about Duce Staley being the face of this team. I'm hoping to expand on that into a full column. Of course, in this day of quick notes and future blogs, I don't know if I can write a full column anymore. And since I don't have to beat any competition, maybe I'll just think about putting in the effort and call it a day.

ChipTheSteelerFan: Hines is not a #1 WR. He is good, he is the best possession WR in the game today, and he does the intangibles like blocking his ass off, but he doesn't take over a game. That is not an insult. Hines is the best Hines Ward he can be. Hines Ward has earned to be the bar for possession WRs.

Chip, here's how I will attack you on this: I don't see Ward as a possession receiver at all. I see him as a true flanker, a receiver who plays like a running back. He's a running back with the ball, which is much different than a possession receiver. It allows him to make big plays, which Harold Carmichael never really did. Now, I agree that he's not the prototypical No. 1 wide receiver. Say the Steelers added a split end such as Calvin Johnson. Now you have Johnson, Ward and Santonio Holmes, with Nate Washington as the No. 4 and Heath Miller as the TE and Willie Parker as a threat out of the backfield. Now you have a big-time passing attack that can overcome the lead-footed right tackle and the weak right guard and the new center, not to mention a defense that's sure to dissolve into a sieve, if it hasn't already.

Ferrous: It ain't very often that a team, one year removed from the Super Bowl can infuse itself with the best the draft has to offer. That thought is the only positive I can think of in this disaster of a season. If they draft the BPA each round this will be easily the most talented team in the league entering the season, although the pundits won't agree.

That's a positive thought and this pundit agrees with you. Really, a good off-season with a chip on their shoulder will go a long way with the addition of a couple of blue-chippers. But, man, didn't the off-season just end?

Keithjfro: THE problem IMO is we still waste too much time with Cedrick. Play Holmes all game. Just once. I'd like to see how we do.

Cowher said after the game that there might be a few changes and this seems like a good place to start. Cedrick Wilson is an incredible ref-baiter. He proved Sunday that he can complain to a ref while a ball's still in the air. Stunning accomplishment, but not what the team needs at this point. The only problem with making that move is you're rewarding another guy who can't, or won't, hold onto the ball. Hey, just trade positions. See if Ced can spot a clip for the ref while the punt's hurtling to earth.

Steelmann58: With the Steelers now out of the Playoff race will Rooney call on Bill to either Sign a new Contract or Let him Go?

Art Rooney II strikes me as determined to the point of being cold-blooded. He has that Rooney patience and wouldn't make a spur-of-the-moment move in-season such as placing that demand on the coach, but Rooney won't stand for losing. He's the guy who put the heat on the coach at the beginning of last season, so don't for a second think he'll be the kind-hearted friend to all that his granddad was, or the rigid-but-kind owner that his dad has been. Not saying he'll do it with gusto, but Art Rooney II will be quicker to tear this team apart than either of the Rooneys who came before him.

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 3

Since there'll be no Answer Man this week, I'm hoping this blog can tide us over till next week. That's when the Answer Man – or the Angry Man, as I would've dubbed him this week – agreed to speak again. Sometimes, it's better to hold your tongue than say something stupid, and that's what the Angry Man is worried about today.

Actually, this blog is beginning at the prompting of one Ed Bouchette. The recognized dean of Pittsburgh football writers, Bouchette took a tour of our site recently and had one simple question: Where's your stuff? Other than the news reports, there is no opinion section for me, so, yes, I will be coming at you in short bursts every other day, or whenever the mood strikes. So, thanks for shaming me into more work, Ed.

This would've been posted earlier but I stayed up late to watch the big college game. What a disappointment. I thought the play in general was sloppy. Just because the offenses light it up doesn't mean it's a good game. The best college game, still, this season is Auburn 7, LSU 3. Fantastic classic. But the only pro talent I saw on the defensive side of the ball last night was Louisville NT Amobi Okoye. He's a 19-year-old senior who was the only guy still playing while WVU ratcheted up the tempo. I didn't study this game, but it appeared Okoye owned the middle of the line, and he wasn't playing across from a chump by any means. Dan Mozes is an outstanding college center, but is a limited from a tools standpoint. Final scoreboard reads: Okoye, high second-rounder; Mozes, fifth or sixth-rounder. QB Brian Brohm gets the benefit of the doubt with his sore thumb and the assumption is he'll be able to throw deeper and stronger as it heals, so give him a mid-second round grade for now. The underclassmen: WVU super soph RB Steve Slaton is a top-five talent (presuming his injury was not imagined), perhaps even a No. 1. What a stud. Louisville's 6-6 Mario Urruta is a young Plax, but his size will be overrated. Everyone loves a big guy in the red zone, but first-round WRs must dominate all over the field. Keep the junior in the bottom of the second round for now.

I approached WR/special teams captain Sean Morey the other afternoon to ask him about tackling Quincy Morgan on Sunday. Morey didn't seem to want to answer the question, but he did. When he was done, he asked me to stay for a second. "I don't normally listen to sports talk radio," he said, "but I was stuck in my car for an hour and a half with my daughter because of Halloween, and I heard your show." Oh, good. He's going to tell me how nice it was. "You were talking about how New England beat Minnesota by going five wides with a no-huddle." Yeah. "And then your partner asked why the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't do more of that." Uh oh. Now I remember. "And you said ‘because Sean Morey would have to be on the field too much." Ugh. "Don't I always try to answer your questions?" Yes, I told him, you do, and you're a class act, and that was a sh—ty comment and I apologize. He just nodded his head, put his socks over his heavily taped and, I presumed, injured ankle and I left because locker-room time was up. It's the ugly part of the job, and I really could've commented honestly on the five-wide attack without throwing that unnecessary remark in there. I hope Morey catches a big pass this week because that's really the only way I can make it up to him. The good thing is that I've met his daughter. She's still too young to hear her daddy get ripped for really no good reason.

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Hey, I've been watching newspapers steal our interactive style over the last few years, so now I'm doing the stealing. The Post-Gazette isn't the only place to find Q&A, but this will come with a twist: The questions will be taken from our message boards, as Dirt Winston has suggested for years. Not that these are the best, but they interest me right now:

NebbSteeler: Kuhn or Duce? We all have kinda figured out that Duce is taking his final ride this season. But, I think this decision the next couple of weeks will be the nail in the coffin for Duce. If the guy cannot become active over a PS squad guy, then it's all over.

But he can't play special teams, so John Kuhn has the edge there this weekend. Duce Staley is a runner, and when a runner is injured he will play. Kuhn, I believe, will be active, and could even play on third downs. He's a better blitz-picker-upper than anyone else on the roster, so why not use him in that capacity, too? I believe we'll see it, and I also believe at some point he'll make a play and could be a guy who grows on us as time goes on. I liked him in preseason and took some heat for it. Some people just laugh at Kuhn and I don't get it. I think he's a player, so mark me down as rooting for Morey and Kuhn this game.

LiveforSteelers: Let's get rid of the offensive line, this way Ben can see the field better. They can't block worth a @#%$ anyway.

I don't know if I have an answer for this, but it's funny. A high-school coach, who had his all-state running back returning but an entirely new offensive line, said the same thing to me before the opener one season. "I just hope they're smart enough to get out of his way," the long-time and successful coach said. And I didn't think he was joking. Anyway, this line is a disappointment. I believe it's a potential trouble spot in the entire structure of the team because the team, with Willie Parker, seems in transition to a passing offense that has a dangerous speedball threat in the backfield, but that the line is made up of run blockers per draft preference. I wonder if they can find an inside runner and keep pounding teams or whether they should rebuild the line with a bunch of Patriot-style nobodies who can pass block. Finding another runner would be easier, but would it be better? I think it's something to watch. Which leads me to …

ChipTheSteelerFan: So Jim, right now, who would you pick?

A few weeks ago, disgusted with the loss to Atlanta, I figured the Steelers to be picking 17th or so, which would put them in line for big and fast Louisville RB Michael Bush, who is out with an injury. I believe the injury would allow this stud to fall that low. But this week the Steelers are sitting at No. 7. They won't end up there, but now we're talking about a real stud at a key position, either CB or OT. When Tim Lewis left a few years ago, I asked him what to watch for on the defense in coming years. He said, one, SS, NT and Buck ILB wear out quickly in this defense and will have to be replaced sooner than you'd like. He also said that for this defense to play at optimum efficiency, it needs a Rod Woodson-type cornerback. So with the baby steps being taken by Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor, I'd have to go with a CB at pick No. 7. And my favorite is Pitt's Darelle Revis. At the practice facility yesterday, everyone was talking about that night's WVU-Louisville game. Pitt D-line coach Greg Gattuso sat down with us and told us he liked Louisville in a high-scoring game. But he, like a scout before him, lamented the loss of the "physical" Michael Bush, so I asked him – since I've read the criticisms that Bush isn't physical enough for his size – if Bush really was physical or whether it's a myth. He said, "Don't buy that. A 260-pound back leaning on you all game – even if he's not a true Jerome Bettis-type pounder – is very tough on a defense." He said he has no reservations that Bush will be a tough inside NFL runner. Pitt DC Paul Rhodes happened past and someone at the table said hi as he walked by. I asked that person what Rhodes thinks of Revis as a person first and athlete second. "He thinks he's the best player in the country. He loves him. Loves him. Says he's easily the best corner in the country.' That only backed up what I thought, and when a coach speaks highly of a person off the record it means he has great character, so mark me down for Darelle Revis. I don't know if anyone can be the next Rod Woodson, but this guy looks like the next Ty Law. I'm not down on McFadden and Taylor. But now I'm truly stacked at a critical position.


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