Blog on the fire

It's the holiday season so the good news (or bad news, depending on your tastes) is free blog for everyone! It's a Festivus for the Rest of Us and today we're talking new Steelers coach, new Steelers O-line and perhaps new Steelers defense.

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 27, 2006, 9 A.M.

Wow. It's over. The Bill Cowher era is coming to an end, if we are to read into his latest comment that he'll announce his decision next week. Two weeks ago, Cowher spoke of taking time to mull over a decision. We read that to mean he'll take his time to negotiate, and we were critical. Not just me, but you, the readers and writers on the SteelCityInsider.com message board. We warned that it would be a classless move, that to take time and then possibly decide against returning would leave the organization in a lurch as far as the time required to hire a new coach. Cowher must've read this message board and thought twice about his previous stance. Either that or he had a warm and fuzzy Christmas with his family while trying to forget this most recent and hideous loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Perhaps it all added up.

So it appears that Cowher's gig is up. It'll be a strange coaching search, considering the team is only one year removed from a title and has all its parts returning next year. Teams normally look for new coaches as the program is hitting bottom. So the question the Steelers must ask themselves is this: Is the program hitting bottom? Probably not, but in my mind there must be some sense of urgency in the personnel department because of this recent loss to the Ravens. Yes, the Ravens just might be the best team in the NFL, but the Steelers must compare themselves to the best in the division. And if that means the best in the NFL, than it's a good problem because the Steelers must find a way to close the chasm in talent that exists between the two teams. The recent 31-7 loss cannot be viewed as a fluke since 27-0 was the difference in the teams' first meeting. The Steelers must walk a fine line in their coaching search: Do they look inward, since this team is only a year removed from a title and want to keep the process flowing smoothly? Or do they concentrate on the 58-7 gap they must close to challenge for their own division? In that way, the blowouts to the Ravens will work to their advantage. The front office won't be able to take their next move for granted.

Today's best of the message boards

Draftnut: If Marcus McNeill could come in and play for the Chargers, a similar talent could do it for us. Particularly if the veterans start working on the position switches, oh the second week of Jan. Although I'd still rather have Tommy Blake, a legit pass blocking LT would be a close second.

Marcus McNeill played with a lot of back pain last year and that was the reason he had a miserable senior season and fell in the draft. That makes him a fluke (and still a future risk) and therefore something you can't count on happening again. There's only one left tackle, I think, who could step in for this team and Joe Thomas will be drafted too early. In theory, moving Marvel Smith to right tackle would be a move to consider, but in reality, if you're sitting there with Levi Brown and his flawed drop step, you're looking at a full year of transitioning. A transition would, of course, be necessary for a second-round left tackle such as Joe Staley as well. I still say the move is Kendall Simmons to center, with Chris Kemoeatu competing with a high draft pick at right guard and Max Starks competing with Willie Colon at right tackle. Camp competition is where it all begins.

JustStillin': I had mentioned getting a stud LT and moving Marvel back to RT a while ago. But you guys kill me with complaining about the "weak" Hartings yet wanting to move Simmons to center.

My information from defensive linemen is that Simmons is stronger than Chukky Okobi, who is Jeff Hartings's current backup. Centers don't have to be as strong as guards anyway, particularly centers with the athletic ability of a Simmons. I think that's his natural position. Some call him an all-around flop, but I'd like to see him play center next preseason after a full off-season of work. If he doesn't work out, there's still Okobi and rookie Marvin Philip.

halftooth: I think there's no question that the Steelers' head coaching position is the most desired gig in the league. So much so that I think it brings candidates who aren't even necessarily available into the picture; coaches and assistants who otherwise wouldn't have a reason to leave might think twice if the Steelers job is open. That being said, I personally love the idea of [Ron] Rivera and really hope we don't stay in house. If we were to stay in house however, why wouldn't we consider [Dick] Lebeau?? I know he didn't do well, but don't the players respect him more than anyone on the staff, and isn't his coaching the most critical to our success as a team? He certainly deserves consideration. Yet we never even talk about him as a possible HC here.

Well put, all the way around. I also wonder why Dick Hoak and John Mitchell are never mentioned because they are the team's best position coaches. I don't have an answer as to why Dick LeBeau isn't considered a candidate, other than he's too old to take that 15-year minimum the Steelers usually have in mind. But you are right, LeBeau would be a tremendous choice, a popular leader, and a guy – because of his previous failure with the Bengals and desire to prove himself this time – who wouldn't be afraid to make the tough decisions that must be made.

soulsteeler: I was thinking of Chow the other day and how he's tweaked the Titans offense to better serve [Vince] Young, and what he could accomplish with Ben, who in my opinion has more talent.

Norm Chow, another good call. But my gut tells me the next coach will not be your passing-fancy type. Ron Rivera makes sense, and so do Jim Schwartz and Gregg Williams. They fit the rough-and-tumble identity the Rooneys seek to fit their climate. But, again, my personal favorite is Mike Singletary. He's a serious student of the game and of life.

Rockpile: I got the book (Men of Steel) for Xmas. The part I liked the best was the stories about Carnell Lake and Kevin Greene. Those guys were part of a great defense in 1994, which I thought was the best defensive team the Steelers ever had under Cowher.

The greatest feedback I receive on my book is the different "favorite chapters" everyone seems to have. My personal favorite -- from a newsman's point of view -- is Roy Jefferson. I thought the chapters that flowed best -- from a writer's point of view -- were Pat Brady and Jimmy Orr. And if anyone wants me to autograph their copy of "Men of Steel,", contact me by ezmail and I'll provide my home address.

steelsouth: I know this may sound controversial and almost blasphemous, but I think it's time to at least consider a move to the 4-3.....I know its a logistical nightmare with the players we need vs. we already have, but it seems like the very good teams with excellent coaching staffs have figured out a lot of our packages (Baltimore, New England, Cincy) ...that, coupled with our LBs not as spry as they used to be.

Also, if you're going to stick with Willie Parker at halfback, the defense needs more beef up front. A ball-control back went hand-in-hand with the smaller and quicker defenses Cowher has used in the past. But now they need a defense that won't tire as easily as Parker and the offense to hit home runs (or go down looking). An example is the most recent game: The Ravens had only one drive over five minutes and that ended with 3:26 left in the first half, or when the defense was tiring because its offense couldn't get untracked. It's my belief the Steelers should work with their talent at hand and not make square pegs fit round holes. The time is right to go 4-3 with their flashy tailback and their lack of talent and depth at linebacker.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 23, 9:30 A.M.

Before last Sunday's game at Carolina, I noticed Anthony Smith in the locker room, over in Linebacker Corner, playing some type of bowling game with a ball of tape and bottles and cans, and he got a strike to the howls of teammates. He fit in like he was an eight-year vet. I asked Larry Foote, one of the proprietors in Linebacker Corner, about Smith and the way he's fitting in.

"He's got personality. He opens up to everybody," said Foote. "Some young guys, people take a liking to earlier. He's one of those guys. He's got the swagger. He's confident. He's a team guy and you hang out with him."

And a few days later Smith pulled off his notorious showboating antic that sent us old writers over the edge. How in the world could a rookie – A ROOKIE – be so bold with the football? That's what us old writers, the guys who think they're the guardians of the game, that's what we wondered.

But Smith said his teammates liked it, and lo and behold, here is what Clark Haggans had to say the other day during his weekly "Steelers Playbook" segment on KDKA-TV with Bob Pompeani:

BP: Before we roll this next videotape, how would you classify Anthony Smith's latest interception?

CH: Oh, it was a pizza delivery.

BP: Pizza delivery? What do you mean?

CH: He had that hot pizza pie he was trying to get to that doorstep two seconds before that guarantee's up. You know, if he don't get it there within 20 minutes it's free, so I think he was high-stepping his way to the porch and trying to get it there.

BP: And he got in trouble for that. Here it is (rolls video).

CH: See, ‘hot pizza, hot pizza.' There he is right there. And he got it right there.

BP: And he got ‘hot potato' right in his face with Dick LeBeau. Look at Dick LeBeau.

CH: Coach LeBeau doesn't like that and Coach Cowher doesn't like that. That isn't what we do playing Steeler football, but you know you get a little humor out of everything. You see him smile right there. He had to get that hot pizza over there before it was free. But you know, it was just part of the game. He was having fun. He's a young guy and I know he's learned his lesson. He'll move on; forgive and forget. I'm just glad he got the interception to help us get off the field.

Anyway, I'm excited to see Smith play with Troy Polamalu for the first time back at safety. And Hines Ward will be healthy for this Ravens game as well. It should be just a bit closer than the last time.

The other day I approached one of the scouts and told him I saw a linebacker the other night. Told the scout his name is Tommy Blake from TCU. Told the scout that it's okay if he hadn't heard of him, but that he will, and I also told the scout not to talk to the media about him because he's only a junior. The scout just shook his head and looked at me like I was crazy. See, I beat him to the punch of his favorite line, but it was also an indication of my problem as a football journalist: I've become friends with several of the scouts but I know that they can't give me information. They've promised Kevin Colbert they wouldn't. So even though we get along socially, I don't feel right putting these guys on the spot with a question. If they don't answer, they (may) feel like a jerk to a friend; if they do answer, they're putting themselves in position to have to lie to their boss. So I don't even ask for info anymore. I realize that's not what you readers here wanted to know, because I know you pay for insider info. However, info does slip through the cracks at times. The important part of walking this fine line, though, is knowing how the team thinks and watching a lot of tape. In other words, doing your own work.

On the prospect docket this weekend are South Florida outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas in the Papajohns.com Bowl today at 1 p.m.; Utah nose tackle Paul Solaia in the Armed Services Bowl tonight at 8 o'clock; and two Hawaii running backs – Nate Ilaoa and Regan Mauia – in the Hawaii Bowl at 8 p.m. Sunday. Nicholas should be an underrated second-day prospect, while Solaia is a potential first-round pick but a perfect 3-4 second-round defensive end for the Steelers. I've seen the term "flying up the boards" in relation with Solaia. All I have to say is get your board right before you post one and therefore no one's "flying up" it. I took a peek at the first series of Hawaii's game with Oregon State and wasn't impressed at all with 3-4 DE prospect Ikaika Alama Francis. He looked stiff and slow. Sometimes it only takes one play to see that, but I'll look at him again Sunday against Arizona State. I'm more interested in the running backs, the 254-pound Ilaoa and the 296-pound Mauia.

Today's best of the message boards

1TinkingShawn: Not having Ogden and a partially crucified McNair could allow the Steelers to double the TE and stuff the run. Any of us OL watchers have the treat of Willie Colon making the field. Colon I believe will not be taken from the field again, IMHO, he will enter next year as a starter and secure RT for years. I still want to draft an OT because Smith is getting up there in dog (NFL) years and Starks is a Guard. I still don't know who Essex is.

I have nothing much to add except a resounding chuckle. Or to rephrase: The Steelers know what they have in Starks and Essex, so they have a keen interest in how Colon will play Sunday.

Yerfdog76: In the article on the front page about Willie Colon, it says he is planning a surprise for his sister. Her boyfriend is going to propose on the jumbotron... Um... I guess it's not a secret anymore... Lol. Did we ruin the surprise?

I supposed I did, but, dang, the dude has to learn he's talking to a reporter when a tape recorder is six inches from his face. I thought about not using it, but the tiebreaker was that his sister – if she does scout the internets (and it's possible she doesn't and that's maybe why Colon felt comfortable telling the story) she may thank me later. I mean, really, who wants to be surprised that way? Anyway, I re-told the story in the media room the next day and someone said he hoped Colon doesn't become cursed the way Chuck Lanza had. Apparently, while out with an injury back in the 1980s, Lanza proposed via the Jumbotron, and he never played again.

Blitz36: What the hell happens now. I know Mario is just releasing statements like he did to get some leverage for a building. But, this has been going on for years. Do you or anyone else really think a plan could be put in to keep the Pens? IMO, the city and the fans have turned there backs on the Penguins, but yet, they embraced the Pirates who have absolutely the worst run franchise in pro sports.

The way they operate around here used to drive this Type A personality absolutely batty. But this is Pittsburgh. They wait until the last possible minute to do anything. But while things change slowly, they do change. This arena will get done. Trust me. Now, I know little about the situation, but am awaiting a white horse carrying Mark Cuban to come charging along any day now. If not, it will be someone else because there are too many real hockey fans in Pittsburgh. The numbers – which money men look at – are too good.

thad5192: sorry fellows ,just cant buy into the hype, last 3 weeks have been against boys, this week they play men, and men who dont like them to boot. hero- mcnair- he aint the best but he is one tough s.o.b. 300 yards ,mostly short over the middle. goat - it was going to be the steeler o line before starks got hurt, no reason to change now, these guys were man handled last time out, outcome- locomotor ataxia-20, the world champion pittsburgh steelers-10

thad, aren't you the nostradamus who led us unbelievers out of the depths and despair of 2-6? Please, don't abandon us now.

cjfollett: Hey Wex, that was a nice peek into the locker room. How focused on winning this game would you say the team is? Are they really out for revenge or is it just another game they need to win?

On Wednesday, I was up on the balcony overlooking the practice field. After watching them work with enthusiasm and argue with and taunt each other and race each other to the other side of the field on "riversides," I turned to Mike Prisuta and said, "They're going to win this game." He said, "I know."

Tyranid: I'm going to end up missing both games because of holiday travel. I will try to catch the articles and post game writeups here as my only source of pre-playoff information.

Hope this doesn't disappoint you, but we won't be working Christmas Day. Dale and I will post columns Sunday night, and Donny will have the photos for us, but other than that we'll see you Tuesday morning. Peace.

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 20, 8 A.M.

Who's the dark horse coming out of the pack this season? A guy named Billy Witz of the Los Angeles Daily News has an interesting take: "The curious thing is that for all this canvassing to find this year's Steelers, few seem to be considering a rather obvious candidate: This year's Steelers."

Yes, you could see that one coming. But are these red-hot Steelers, who've turned the ball over only two times in the last three weeks, merely a product of weak opposition? Well, that could be the case. The last three teams the Steelers faced used backup quarterbacks, but they combined for only 13 points and frankly were lucky to score those, so there's little argument the Steelers' defense is jelling no matter the opposition. They're getting to quarterbacks with only four rushers and their secondary is coming together with the rapid improvement of cornerback Bryant McFadden and the discovery of rookie free safety Anthony Smith. Throw in the fact that Troy Polamalu is due back from an injury and Ike Taylor's interception might foreshadow a return to form for the slumping and benched cornerback and it's not a stretch to believe the defense can become even better. Offensively, Santonio Holmes is blossoming and giving the Steelers a legitimate deep threat. Combine that with his blocking and toughness with the ball after the catch and an argument can be made that he's playing better than Plaxico Burress ever did with the Steelers. Tight end Heath Miller's also showing more ruggedness at the line of scrimmage. In fact, the entire line showed it could move a quality front on the road Sunday. They've given Willie Parker a shot of confidence, and Ben Roethlisberger is back to his old standards. The special teams are making major contributions, aside from the simple coverage that a fan has a right to expect. So, yes, this team has played ragged opposition of late, but they've built confidence and gotten healthy and gotten better at the same time. They're a potent bunch at this point, and if they can't make the math work for a playoff berth this year, the excitement created by this strong finish is certain to carry over into next season.

That, more than anything, might be enough to make Bill Cowher come back. Winning is fun, no doubt about it, so how could he pass up another chance with this team having found its stride? All I could glean from the show he put on yesterday at his press conference is that money is in fact a big deal here. Let's see, he answered the question about burnout (no), and he answered the question about wanting to watch his daughters play basketball (no). But he didn't answer the question about money. Hmmm. Of course, he went off like a suburban soccer mom by blaming the media for its performance in this quagmire. His claim that he hasn't been asked any questions by Pittsburgh reporters concerning his future came off as disingenuous to the many who'd heard his rebuttals at training camp. He was crystal clear when he scolded reporters then that he wasn't going to discuss the issue during the season. How quickly soccer moms and football coaches forget.

Max Starks played his best game of the season, and he did so in pain. That surprised me because he played with so much enthusiasm and effectiveness. But he'll undergo surgery today and miss the final two games. On his show last night, Starks said he believes that Willie Colon and not veteran Trai Essex will replace him at right tackle. Cowher hinted at it using the rookie when he didn't commit to the veteran, who's been the (unneeded) swing man off the bench this season. This way, Colon plays the position at which he's practiced all season and Essex remains the guy who can step in at every position but center if an injury occurs during the game. As for Starks, he can't be excited about this. He's the only starter with an expiring contract and the Steelers are about to get a look at who could replace him. Then again, Starks finished on a high note against Carolina, and he, too, will get a look at the backup's performance. I guess leverage can work both ways.

I saw the Steelers' future last night and it is Tommy Blake. The TCU defensive end looked like Jason Taylor as he went against a second-tier pro prospect, tackle Doug Free, in the Poinsettia Bowl. Blake is tall, rangy, strong, quick, has flexible hips and a great motor. He has the frame to add 20 to 30 pounds and has 3-4 outside linebacker written all over him. He's only a junior, and intends to return to school, but with such a dim crop of draft prospects due out, someone ought to talk some sense into Blake because the time is right for him to come out. He'd be a mid first-round pick, and if he goes to the Steelers would become a star. In addition to the bowl game, I watched the TCU-Utah tape and also want Utah NT Paul Solaia in the second round. What a coup it would be for the Steelers to add this outside linebacker and that defensive end in the first two rounds next April.

Today's best of the message boards

Calisteel: I'm satisfied with the Steelers that got picked this year for the Pro Bowl. If anything, Faneca maybe got some props for reputation, rather than actual stellar play all the time this year, but the line's been better of late, so I won't complain.

I understand this is not an official complaint, but I have to disagree with this school of thought. You're not the only one saying it, but I believe Alan Faneca has been the one consistent player on the line this season. He wasn't splattering linebackers on that counter lead the Steelers like to run until the second half of the season, but he was the best player on the field against Kansas City. So he gets beat every now and then in pass pro – he always has. That reminds me when people used to complain about Rod Woodson getting beat every now and again. It happens. But for my money, Faneca's been the most consistent and outstanding player on offense all season. I don't think he's lost anything.

ProBowlPorter: Does anybody know who from the Steelers are alternates for the Pro Bowl? I was really pulling for Aaron Smith to make it. As for who made it, I think FWP and Hampton were very deserving, but Polo didn't play enough and made it on rep as did Faneca (who probably had his worst year in a while).

Wvette: I'm disappointed that Faneca and Troy made it. They didn't deserve it. I hope they decline, particularly Troy. He needs to rest his body this offseason and not play a meaningless game.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'll stand by my thoughts on Faneca. This season was a duplicate of last season: Some early struggles but by and large the offense's most consistent player and a real steamroller down the stretch. I, too, believe Aaron Smith deserved a berth. Aaron Schobel may have sacks but he'll have to show me something in a big game, and I think Richard Seymour made it on reputation.

bpow0407: If you want to know the simplest fact about the Steelers and playoffs: Wins by BUF AND JAX AND CIN this week eliminate the Steelers; root hard for New England and Tennessee.

For a fuller explanation from bpow and our other able mathemeticians, check the message boards. I also think Miami beating the Jets is very important.

ColbertsAssistant: Bruce Arians seems like the best choice of the assistants on the staff (for offensive coordinator if Whisenhunt's promoted). But I would imagine they would look at both Arians and Whipple for the job.

I feel bad that Mark Whipple didn't get the BC job. He seemed perfect for it. That said, I also learned that Whipple is behind Arians in the hierarchy here.

felcher: Love Blake and the Horned Frogs. Anyone who gambles should make this game a priority bet. I've saved up a nickel on the side to put on TCU. NIU won't have several starters including their QB. BLOWOUT coming.

TCU, 37-7. That's a call you've gotta respect.

MONDAY, DECEMBER 18, 12:30 P.M.

This one made everyone remember how fun Sunday afternoons can be. Bill Cowher had to feel the same way. Seeing him standing out on the field with Hines Ward and Willie Parker, I wondered if this question was going through Cowher's mind: Would I miss my boys as much as I'd miss my girls? Tough call for a guy looking at the final few years of both situations. As a parent, he's two years from becoming an empty-nester, and one away from home; as a coach, he's probably a few years from losing this great mix of a team he's helped put together. It'll be a tough call; one in which money won't be the end-all.

The punt return before Santonio Holmes scored the touchdown – not the one he fumbled that was negated by a penalty, but the one on which he circled back like he was Antwaan Randle El looking for a crease – was the first sign he's feeling comfortable back there. Holmes in previous games either made a fair catch or took the few open yards given him, but that return against Carolina was a sign he's looking to make plays. On the punt he fumbled, he'd looked up to find running room, so it was no surprise when he broke the next punt. But that was only part of his outstanding performance. Anyone who watched Ohio State's bowl game last year against Notre Dame saw Holmes make several outstanding blocks, and that's what we saw Sunday in Carolina. Holmes blocked two players on a short screen to Hines Ward, and then he threw a key block on the third-and-12 screen pass that Najeh Davenport took to the one. On the second screen to Davenport, the one that went for a touchdown, Alan Faneca, Kendall Simmons and Jeff Hartings led the charge up the field, but that blur pushing Chris Gamble from one end of the TV screen to the other, that was Holmes again. As a receiver, Holmes showed agility, strength and amazing body control in coming within 12 inches of two touchdowns, but his most important reception came on third-and-nine from the Steelers' 11. It was early in the third quarter and the Panthers' defense had just come out of a revival meeting at halftime. Kris Jenkins had just killed Faneca and Marvel Smith on consecutive plays and the Panthers' fans were roused for a last hurrah. But Holmes took a short pass and carried Ken Lucas six yards for a big first down. Ben Roethlisberger then threw a 20-yard pass to Heath Miller on the next third down with Peppers bearing down on him after beating Faneca. Those consecutive first downs sucked the life out of the Panthers, and their fans, and the rout was on.

By the way, did you see Cedrick Wilson congratulating Holmes on his apparent touchdown? I'm concerned that Wilson, upon the inevitable benching for Holmes, will pout about it, but he seems happy for Holmes, who should officially move past Wilson in the lineup any day now. It appears Wilson is ready to accept the inevitable. The camera showed him to be one of Holmes's biggest cheerleaders on the sideline. Oh, and Wilson threw a great pass. He looked like a baseball catcher throwing a strike to second base off a pitch-out.

Anthony Smith, the Steelers' second draft pick, also played a fantastic game. This guy looks like he has the hands and instincts to become a true ballhawk, but more impressive is his suddenness in the run game. He did make two mistakes, and the one – trying to ignore Dick LeBeau after showboating with the ball – had better not happen again. The other mistake was the missed tackle that allowed DeShaun Foster to run 29 yards for Carolina's biggest play. Foster ran Smith over, but at least Smith was in position this time, unlike last week's miss on Braylon Edwards.

Marvel Smith's troubles on the road continue. He allowed two of the three sacks of Roethlisberger yesterday. In the previous road game, at Baltimore, Smith allowed three sacks. Is the left tackle having trouble hearing out of his right ear? Except for those two games, Smith has been adequate this season. On the other side, Max Starks received help to block Julius Peppers early in the game, but was left alone with Peppers more often than not as the game went on. It was obvious Starks was excited about playing Sunday. If it takes the town dumping on him to motivate him, let the dumping continue.

In the last two games, the Steelers have blitzed – sent more than four pass-rushers – 15 times on 82 dropbacks. They're blitzing 18 percent of the time, well below the LeBeau norm. But those opponents scored only 10 points. Either he's saving up a fresh allotment of blitzes for these final two games or LeBeau's seeking some sort of artistic success by putting five, six and seven players at the line and sending four more effectively. And it's working. The opposing quarterbacks have been fooled almost as often as the play-by-play announcers.

Carolina came into the game dead last in both punt-return and kickoff-return averages, but that won't take the starch out of this paragraph, not after all of the lousy special-teams coverage we've seen this season. In their first 10 games, the Steelers allowed 8.8 yards per punt return and 24.4 yards per kickoff return. In the last four games, or since James Harrison returned from an injury, the Steelers allowed 2.8 yards per punt return and 18.2 yards per kickoff return. Throw in a punt return for a touchdown by Holmes and a blocked punt by Harrison and Kevin Spencer has wrapped up the Comeback Assistant Coach of the Year award.

On college prospects, Ohio State defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock is ranked No. 7 on Mel Kiper's "Big Board," No. 14 by Rivals and No. 27 by the Great Blue North Draft Report. Kiper notes that Pitcock is "Great in the run game at taking up space." I thought that odd for a 295-pounder whom I've watched several times this season, so I looked at my notes. Now, I'm not a scout, so take it with two grains of salt, but I gave Pitcock a fifth to sixth-round grade against Texas, a fifth-round grade against Penn State and a fourth-round grade against Michigan. I graded his linemate, David Patterson, higher in two of the three games. Am I crazy? Am I missing what others aren't? Not according to the latest edition of Pro Football Weekly. In his breakdown of the defensive line crop, Nolan Nawrocki writes: "Pitcock is the most overrated of the bunch. If teams were grading him strictly on toughness and effort, maybe he does deserve a first-round grade in those areas. He does have eight sacks, which is outstanding for a defensive lineman, but scouts have not been fooled by the numbers. Almost all of his production has come vs. inferior competition. He plays very soft inside, gets tied up on blocks too much and shows no explosiveness with his hands. He does not show the strength to take on blockers, is not nimble-footed and his elbows are usually bent … It's difficult to believe many teams would want to waste a first-day pick on a player who will not be a starter." The writer rates Gaines Adams and Quentin Moses at the top of the position and says both could become 3-4 OLBs, but says Adams more easily than Moses, who has his doubters. The writer also doubts that either Anthony Spencer or LaMarr Woodley has the hip flexibility to become a 3-4 OLB.

Today's best of the message boards

steelmann58: Is Najeh the answer as a backup back or is he more suited for a Haynes role with this team and should we draft a big power back? Do the Steelers still need to draft an Olineman early in the draft? I have been very pleased with the way the Ol, and especially Starks, played the last few games. Do the Steelers use an early pick on a pass rusher? i have been very impressed with they play of both Aaron Smith and The Diesel. Keisel has been getting better and better each week and showing good push.

Just to answer your questions simply, the free-agent losses after the 2007 season should be heaviest in the defensive front seven. There are five in that group whose contracts will expire soon (Haggans, Hoke, Kirschke, Porter, Smith). The next group is the offensive line, where four contracts are due to expire. Remember, the Steelers use simple logic at draft time.

poonugget: I can't wait to see Smith and Polo both playing together.

As I watched Smith come up to support the run so quickly on Sunday, I wondered whether he's freelancing a bit, and I wondered how that would mesh with Polamalu's game. I wonder if one will need to play with more discipline, and I wonder if the coaches will hold Smith back because of it. Otherwise, yes, these two safeties hold a world of promise.

ChipTheSteelerFan: [Smith] did do a crappy job when Foster ran him over. But that was my fault for complimenting his tackling before that play.

I was wondering about that. Thanks for stepping up, Chip. Just don't do it again.

steelerngreece: Should Cincy lose all three and the Ravens lose 1 (to us)... EVERY team ahead of us will beat us to the playoffs by Strength of Victory.... NO MATTER WHAT JAX DOES. WE NEED CINCI'S ANTICIPATED VICTORY POINTS NOT THEIR PLAYOFF SPOT!!! OTHERWISE WE will be MATHEMATICALLY ELIMINATED.

Also, if the Bengals are involved with the Steelers in a three-team tie, the Bengals eliminate the Steelers via divisional tiebreaker. That's the first step in rooting out three and four-team ties. Steelers fans should cheer for the Bengals to beat the Broncos next week, so I guess your lead should be followed with the Bengals tonight.

txBlitz: Tommy Blake is a stud, and will make a great OLB in 2008. I have seen him for 3 years, and he has amazing speed and effort. Watch him on December the 19th.

Will do. The Poinsettia Bowl on Tuesday night it is.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 15, NOON

Bill Cowher treats the local media the way girlfriends, wives, family members and whatnot treat those closest to them when outsiders visit for Christmas. That's been Cowher's path when asked about his future by the likes of Cris Collinsworth and faceless voices on the other end of a conference call in Charlotte. His answers to them have been more thoughtful than to those he knows back in Pittsburgh. It's kind of understandable, since I know the Pittsburgh media, am part of the Pittsburgh media, but that's the dynamic we're dealing with as the seeming end of the Cowher era in Pittsburgh closes in. The Steelers' PR department shut the door Thursday on questions for Cowher, in light of his comments to the Charlotte media ("A lot of deep thought will be put into it. It won't be a knee-jerk reaction. It will be something that is well thought out, and a decision will be made accordingly."). The PR director told inquiring Pittsburgh reporters that Cowher has been asked this question too many times already this season. And Cowher's answer any time he's been asked in Pittsburgh? "NO!" along with accompanying sneers and glares, free of charge. Anyway, it does seem as if Cowher's on his way out, but if he thinks the Steelers will allow him two months to make a decision he's wrong. They can't allow other teams to cherry-pick their in-house replacement candidates. Even if Cowher decides on a two-year extension, my understanding is the Steelers would say no because they want a true commitment.

The word running through the grapevine calls Russ Grimm the frontrunner over Ken Whisenhunt to become the next Steelers coach. Give me either one. I'd like to start over with one of those guys and I don't believe the fall-off on the field would be noticeable.

Has a fall-off in coaching been noticeable this year? Many fans believe the answer is a resounding yes. They perceive a lack of interest from Cowher because his sideline demeanor isn't as excitable as they feel it should be. Clark Haggans brushed that off in today's Post-Gazette. "I've been cussed out the same way by him a couple games ago the way I was four years ago," Haggans said. An assistant coach told me the same thing: "Those people haven't heard the things I've heard over the headset during games. Trust me; he still has plenty of passion for the game."

Word came to me that the Steelers are looking to replace their dirt field with an artificial surface, so I went straight to the top. "Nope," said Dan Rooney. "They're still sending us stuff, but we're sticking with what we have. I like it and the coach likes it. Now, the president, he has other ideas." So there you have it. Those hoping for FieldTurf must wait until Art Rooney II is making the decision himself.

Okay, so I made a mistake. A faithful reader got hot at me for writing that Jacksonville and Cincinnati must lose out for the Steelers to qualify for the playoffs. I guess I didn't take the tiebreakers all the way through because he claims that Jacksonville can win a game, finish in a three-way tie with the Steelers and either Kansas City or Buffalo, and win the fourth tiebreaker. I believe him, but I'm not about to count the records of common opponents with three games to play.

Here's what I think the AFC wild-card scenario will look like after this week (two qualify): 1. Cincinnati 8-6 (4-1, 6-4); 2. Jacksonville 8-6 (2-4, 5-5); 3. Denver 7-7 (3-3, 7-4); 4. New York 7-7 (3-2, 5-5); 5. Buffalo 7-7 (3-3, 5-5); 6. Steelers 7-7 (2-2, 4-6); 7. Tennessee 7-7 (4-2, 4-6); 8. Kansas City 7-7 (3-2, 3-7).

A weak draft talent pool isn't being helped much by the underclassmen. Yesterday, Michigan tackle Jake Long announced he'll be coming back to school next year, as did Louisville wide receiver Mario Urrutia. Those two are favorites of mine. The draft also lost USC juniors Lawrence Jackson (DE/OLB) and Sam Baker (OT) earlier in the week. Both are in the midst of uninspiring seasons, but would still fill out the round. So without running backs or true linebackers factoring into the first-round mix, and with the crop of offensive tackles dwindling daily, it might be time to just draft a cornerback or even a guard. Geez. Darrelle Revis or Ben Grubbs? To me, that's an easy call, but my gut tells me the Steelers wouldn't take my boy Revis if given the chance.

In the big high school game this weekend, nearby Jeannette is playing for its first state title (state playoffs are fairly new around here). Junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor is considered the greatest talent to come out of tradition-rich Jeannette since Dick Hoak quarterbacked the Jayhawks to the 1956 WPIAL title. Hoak, of course, is a fan, and he's hoping Pryor chooses football over basketball in college, although he admits the kid could become a star in either sport.

Today's best of the message boards

stlrnews: give me Ron Rivera, Chicago DC.

If they go with the '85 Bears, give me Mike Singletary.

VandilayIndustrites: 2007 & the Salary cap: Who can/should we extend this offseason?

The free agents this March will be backups Tyrone Carter, Najeh Davenport and Rodney Bailey. The only starter up for restricted free agency is RT Max Starks. My guess is they'll offer Starks the low tender and take the third-round pick if someone else grabs him. If the Steelers do keep Starks, I imagine they'd do so without extending his contract and would let him play for his next contract.

In that scenario, Starks would join a dozen other players in the final year of contracts in 2007. That list includes (age during 2007 season in parentheses): Ricardo Colclough (25), Alan Faneca (31 in Dec. 2007), Clark Haggans (30), Jeff Hartings (35), Verron Haynes (28), Chris Hoke (31), Travis Kirschke (33), Dan Kreider (30), Troy Polamalu (26), Joey Porter (30), Kendall Simmons (28) and Aaron Smith (31).

Colclough, by the way, told me he'll be back next year. The only name that jumps off the list as a must-sign is Polamalu. The second tier involves the stars who'll be moving into their third contracts, but I'd still begin talks with Faneca and Smith. Porter is close. While knee problems have affected him, Porter's still the leader of this team, but the guess is he'll want too much money.

ericson: Quentin Moses -- What do you guys think about this edge rusher in Black and Gold?

Moses and LaMarr Woodley of Michigan are two defensive ends to watch this bowl season. The only time I studied Moses was Georgia's Sept. 30 game at Ole Miss. He looks like a pure 4-3 end. He's big and can run but I don't consider him an elite athlete, meaning I don't think he's agile enough to play linebacker. He didn't flash against Ole Miss and I put a 2nd-to-3rd round grade on him. BTW, I put a second-round grade on Ole Miss MLB Patrick Willis, who just won the Butkus Award. He's big, rangy, likes contact but didn't make many plays. He's not sudden, but could become a better pro because he has the body for it. He needs to time well to get into the first round. As for Woodley -- who's similar in stature and position and motor to pure DE Tamba Hali -- he stands up at times for Michigan, and could project to strong side OLB or even the buck ILB, but he'll have to lose weight. His butt's too big. So my advice this bowl season is to watch Moses' hips and Woodley's butt, and ignore any names Joey Porter might call you.

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 13, 7:50 A.M.

Today's Boston Globe is calling Mark Whipple the frontrunner over Green Bay offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and New York Giants quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride, among others, for the head coaching job at Boston College. Whipple met for a second time with BC officials on Monday and is said to already be looking over the school's list of recruits. BC would be making a great hire in Whipple, the man who oversaw the development of Ben Roethlisberger and who never much wanted credit for it. The first day Roethlisberger touched down was also Whipple's first day, but he never sought to make his name through the young superstar. On that first day Whipple said he'd be crazy to change anything about Roethlisberger or to overcoach him, and right then I knew Whipple was a keeper. He became a confidant of Roethlisberger, who, as we saw from the Super Bowl outtakes, doesn't have the near the same relationship with head coach Bill Cowher. It didn't take long for Roethlisberger to tell the difference between an offensive mind and a defensive one.

With Roethlisberger having already endured three seasons worth of growing pains, the loss of Whipple won't cripple the team. They'll miss his input, his relationship with Roethlisberger and his pleasant demeanor, yes. But there are plenty of offensive minds over on the South Side. Just in case Ken Whisenhunt is promoted, the Steelers still have Bruce Arians as the backup offensive coordinator.

Reaping the benefit of Whipple's knowledge will be Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, who could come out as a first-day draft pick this year but will surely stay for his senior season to absorb all of what Whipple has to teach him. Look for Ryan to become the No. 1 QB prospect next season, and for Boston College to ascend into the top 10 and possibly battle for a national title. There's really only one current pro prospect at BC, meaning this team will even be stronger next year. And it'll be fun to root for a good guy like Mark Whipple.

The Steelers' playoff hopes, in my opinion, aren't as bleak as most believe. Of course, most believe they're as bleak as a funeral in a thunderstorm, but if the impossible has to happen, it appears the impossible is possible on paper. Yes, either Cincinnati or Jacksonville must lose out. But both have remaining schedules that make it possible. And of the three other teams ahead of the Steelers – New York, Kansas City, Denver – the team with the best tiebreakers – Denver – is the team in the worst freefall. It can happen … if the Steelers run the table that is.

Today's best of the message boards

felcher: Don't be an idiot. Coming off of the SB with extra comp. picks in last year's draft it was just flat out impossible for all of those picks to end up on our roster. How many spots were really available? Not too many. The only disturbing thing about the Harris pick is that he was not fit for our defense. He's not a 3-4 DE and he isn't stout enough at all tto play nose. They took a chance on a fourth rounder when we had multiple fourth rounders. What e devastating loss that he got signed off of the PS. Get a hold on reality.

This from a poster who apparently can't respond to anyone without rancor. Why our mods put up with this guy is beyond me but it won't last much longer. This was in response to the Steelers losing fourth-round pick Orien Harris off the practice squad. felcher is repeating the mantra that we all fell for last draft season: The Steelers didn't have enough openings for all of their draft picks. I, unfortunately, fell for that line of garbage, but have since come back to the realization that EVERY draft pick is valuable and EVERY draft pick at the least provides camp competition for, say, an offensive line that's been in coast mode throughout most of the season. It's also being espoused that Orien Harris was an example of drafting your board. Who's board? Mel Kiper's? I guess we'll hear the same squeals of delight next year when someone drafts an overrated prospect such as Buster Davis, saying, "How could they pass on that value?" When in reality he's a seventh-rounder, as Harris should've been graded. We'll never hear from Harris again. As for Scott Paxson, who replaces Harris on the practice squad, one of the Steelers' defensive linemen told me Paxson was the team's best rookie D-lineman at camp. I don't know if that's good enough to make the team next year, but I do know those guys didn't have much respect for Harris. They felt he only stuck around because he was a draft pick.

ROLLTIDE4EVER: What is the feeling on what Bill Cowher will do after the reason? Is Ken Whisenhunt the consensus as Cowher's replacement if Bill does retire?

No, they're not interested in coaching college ball at the University of Bear Bryant. Go hire a coordinator from Auburn.

NCinthenext3: In the BC press conference transcript there are a few references to a reporter nick-named "Walnuts" by the transcriber/writer. Can someone help me out? There has to be a story behind the nickname.

He's Paul Alexander, and if you see the picture of the two you'll understand. I notice someone named "Paulie Walnuts" entered Ed Bouchette's most recent chat and asked why everyone throws softballs at Bill Cowher during his press conference. Ed didn't answer. He knows "Walnuts" throws most of them.

Stlrnews: To move [Kendall Simmons] to center for one year and draft an OG to replace him seems like a lot of work if the guy was just going to be allowed go the following year anyway. Who would then play center when he left? Seems like a very short-sighted approach. If that were the case, then why not just draft a center, play Simmons at OG and replace him with Kemo or another OG when he leaves?

You're assuming they want him to leave. This is a guy with great athletic ability and character. If he gets some confidence, Simmons will become a true leader on this team. Why not take a look at him at center? He's a better fit there than he is at guard, where he gets mauled by the better and bigger DTs in the league. At center he could still use his great agility, and is said to be stronger than Chukky Okobi. Jeff Hartings was moved to center because he was considered too small for guard and I thought that move worked out well. As for drafting a guard to compete with Chris Kemoeatu, I don't see anything wrong with that. Kemo hasn't shown enough to garner anyone's trust yet. And if he does develop, and you're "stuck" with two good right guards in the end, there could be worse problems. But SOMETHING has to be done with the O-line. Drafting a right tackle is also a possibility, but they already have two young backups at tackle; only one at guard.

Dirtwinston: "It was late, that's what (slur) do," Porter said. "He's soft. He wants to be tough but he's really soft." Did Porter have to add the slur?

No, he did not. I was asked this question late on our Tuesday radio show and, because I generally take a contrarian view of the politically correct policemen in the media, I responded that it's not a big deal, that we all used the slur as kids, that no one was hurt and that we should all just forget about it. But as I drove home I realized I was wrong. Pathetically wrong.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 9, 10 A.M.

Coming into the game, I'd heard rumblings from the top of the organization about the offensive line in general and the right tackle in particular, so it was obvious why the O-line would come out firing off the ball against the Cleveland Browns. They hear these rumblings, too, particularly when contracts are coming due. Funny, only one contract is up – the right tackle's – and it never fails to become clear that guys playing for money or their job play harder than guys who aren't. So when you have a team full of settled contracts, a 6-7 record is not surprising.

But the Steelers are putting it together. There's now legitimate competition at wide receiver and in the secondary. Bryant McFadden played another strong game and the rookie free safety – except for the missed tackle on the Browns' only touchdown – will force a position battle from now through the next camp. That's three-fourths of a secondary the Steelers shouldn't have to worry about for a few years, and the same can be said of the receivers after the way Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington played Thursday night. Hines Ward has been written off for three years now as "a singles hitter," in the infamous words of P-G columnist Ron Cook. He's struggled with injuries this year, and so people are convinced he's finally slowed down, but when he's been healthy Ward has been a true power hitter this season. Ward, with a full off-season to prepare (unlike this past year), will re-emerge as such a threat next season. I still see three years in him, so the performances of Holmes and Washington – and in the previous game Cedrick Wilson – bodes well for the rest of the unit.

Bill Cowher cut off a couple of my questions with terse responses after the game. It made me wonder what he's mad about. I can't recall anything out of the ordinary that I've written. I hammered him pretty good after the Atlanta game and he seemed to take it well. Then I re-watched Thursday's game and heard Cris Collinsworth paraphrase Cowher as such after their pre-game interview: "It's not about the money. He just wants to be like an ordinary guy, go somewhere and have a beer and have nobody ask about football." Uh, guess what? Too late. If Cowher wanted to be like me, he should've climbed aboard that career path a long time ago. But I can see where I've wronged Cowher. Perhaps he's read in this blog that I believe Cowher's unsigned extension is all about money and not some notion of walking the beaches of North Carolina with his wife for a year or so. I say it's all about money and now Cowher says it's all about getting some peace and quiet. I'll still call B.S. on that and I guess Cowher will continue to answer tersely. At least those typing up the transcripts will appreciate it.

Ben Roethlisberger really is a cliché machine, but that's only smart. You know what else is smart about Roethlisberger? Asking to go back into the Ravens game even though he was beaten, bruised and too far out of the game to make a comeback. And do you know what else is smart about Roethlisberger? Arranging a jet for those teammates wishing to attend the funeral of Johnnie Bettis. The dude's becoming a true leader, on the field and off. So he can be a bit of a … a … jerk when it comes to signing stuff for teammates around Christmas time. Stuff like that used to bug me, but he's coming through with the big stuff and always, always, always credits teammates and discredits himself in interviews. He's growing as a leader and obviously that's big for the Steelers.

Today's best of the message boards

Steelerngreece: Yeah, that guy Parker sucks! … I know nobody said it really but come on did we really have to have that conversation? Man I wish they would have let him play the 4th quarter to get that NFL record...

John Steigerwald complained about people saying this and that about Willie Parker all game. John has to listen to questions from fans every night, so I assumed that's what he was talking about. Then, in the post-game press conference, a TV reporter asked Parker about "all the haters out there" and so I had to ask someone else what the heck's going on out there in the vast sports-talk wasteland. I was told it's Mark Madden, that he spent the week ripping Parker and saying the Steelers need a new running back. Atta boy, Mark, another great call.

Steelers2695: My question is why were the Steelers so much more successful [running the ball] last night when they weren't very successful against the same Browns team just 3 weeks ago.

I know this sounds crazy, but crowd noise has played a key role with this offensive line this year. I know there was crowd noise last year, particularly in the playoffs, but the Steelers scored early in those game after succeeding on first down. That always quieted the crowd and got the visitors into the game. That hasn't been happening this year on the road. There was also the case of the organization having had enough of the lackluster O-line play and there was a sense of urgency in that group going into the game. And the third factor was the weather. Everyone was freezing, but the Browns had no real reason to win this game and the Steelers did. The Browns simply quit.

RyanFWilson: I was a big Plax fan and wanted the team to re-sign him after the 2004 season. But I wrote an article in the summer of 2005 that said a WR's height didn't correlate very well with output. That kinda changed my thinking on the issue. I think guys like T.O. and Randy Moss (pre-Raiders) skew reality when it comes to tall wideouts.

After watching Holmes closely Thursday night, I agree with you Ryan. I also watched Dewayne Jarrett against UCLA and decided he is not the answer. Height only helped him in the red zone, but there's so much more work to be done on the field. On Thursday, Holmes would've had a much bigger game had Ben seen him flash open as often as I did. Holmes had several steps on his man deep – twice that I remember – and Ben missed him. Holmes will become a legitimate deep threat opposite Ward soon enough.

Stlrnews: Did we stop blitzing because they successfully blocked it and so we stopped trying?

I don't know that they ever really started blitzing. The Steelers' first blitz came on the Browns' sixth pass. Of 24 first-half pass plays, the Steelers blitzed only seven times. I believe the Steelers just expected the erratic Anderson to throw a few unsolicited interceptions and they wanted more people in the secondary. They didn't need to blitz, and when you don't need to you're more effective in the closing minutes if you have to.

Stillerfreak: Wex, turns out your interview with Walter Young was genius. How did you know he would get us that first down?

It's just experience. Seriously, I'm glad Walter was able to, No. 1, get in, and, No. 2, make his first catch. But he flipped the ball away. Walter, with all due respect, I don't see you catching another one. You should've kept it.

txBlitz: I think Porter deserves credit as well for keeping his cool. He may get fined for his comments after the game, but I love how he sticks up for all his teammates. With Bussie gone, Porter is the heart and soul of this team.

You are right about that. I loved the way he refused to shake hands with Winslow before the game. I broached that topic when Cowher tried to make nice with Michael Vick on the sideline in the final minute of the Falcons game. I hate that stuff, and Winslow looks like the classic "I'm over here talking to their star because I'm our star" players with whom we've all been saddled on our high school teams.

Chriskane: I would like to know the truth about the O-line. Are they this good? Is Cleveland that bad? Is the Ravens D that good?

1. No; 2. Yes; 3. Yes, when their crowd gets involved. The right side of the Steelers' line still needs work. Whether those players can fix it themselves with serious off-season work – as Starks did coming into his first season as a starter – is up to them, but now the organization is on it. Either way, the line will receive attention before 2007.

McClure48: My unsung hero of the game is James "Silverback" Harrison. Last week I picked Aaron Smith as my unsung player of the game, but saying that he's "unsung" is doing him a dis-service. He's playing like an MVP this year. As for Harrison, all I can say is "Damn". It seemed like on every kickoff he was making the tackle. The dude plays with the type of quiet rage that all good linebackers should play with. Not to mention the fact that he'll hit you like a bag full of hammers.

I wrote about Harrison, Morey, Iwuoma and Kriewaldt charging down the middle of the field and sending chills up my spine, and I was serious. I don't know why they had that affect on me more than anyone else in that game, but it made me remember the charge to the Super Bowl last year. Weird, I know, but that's how I get.

Chipthesteelerfan: I have no source to quote, but I was told the Steelers are finally seriously discussing getting rid of the grass field.

I hope not. Cowher likes it. Dan Rooney likes it. I'm hoping Art Rooney II isn't the one behind your rumor Chip. I love this field and could care less how it looks on TV.

MONDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2:45 P.M.

First the ugly numbers: The Steelers averaged 2.81 rushing yards per carry the last three games. Of the team stats to which I have access -- back through the 1997 season – there's been no worse three-game stretch. My research will expand tomorrow, but only one other stretch is close: In Weeks 4-6 of the 2003 season, with Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham starting at tackle (Alan Faneca started at left tackle in the third game of the stretch), the Steelers averaged 2.93 yards per rush. Willie Parker's 2.7 per carry in the last three games is his worst personal stretch, with last year's average of 2.8 during Weeks 3-5 close.

Against Tampa Bay, the Steelers gained 76 yards on 31 carries and most of it done against seven in the box. Tampa's strong safety did react to his run keys quickly, so perhaps the Steelers are giving the play away. The Bucs did bring up a steady eighth when the Steelers pulled away late in the third quarter. Parker's longest run, 14 yards, was against nine defenders in the box. On that counter, Alan Faneca pulled and he and fullback Dan Kreider made solid, successful blocks. That counter play hasn't worked as well as it did last season, but the blocks were finally made and Parker sprung one. The Steelers mixed it up, too. There was no discernible pattern to the playcalling.

Jeff Hartings, Kendall Simmons and Max Starks seemed culpable. However, late-game replacements Chukky Okobi (center) and Trai Essex (left tackle) showed nothing upon which to base a position switch. They all do things well at times, but they're most consistently inconsistent. Maybe I'm just tired of watching them closely and have become permanently cranky. Or old.

Another problem was the poor blocking of flanker Nate Washington. After Parker was splattered on one run, he got up slowly, fixed his helmet, and then fixed his gaze toward the sideline as if to say, "Nate's bringing a guy into the box, not taking one out."

On a brighter note, cornerback Bryant McFadden played his best game. He's emerging as the lead cornerback and fans can breathe a sigh of relief. With Ike Taylor in a deep funk, the Steelers as an organization needed a big game from McFadden. He intercepted a fade pass to Maurice Stovall on a second-and-goal play from the Pittsburgh 4. McFadden slipped behind Stovall and became the offensive player. The best part is it wasn't just a great, athletic move, but a canny one, done with instinct on the move. It's a big sign for McFadden and a big one for the team. McFadden showed confidence breaking on the ball. He closed a big cushion to break up a pass to Joey Galloway early in the third quarter. McFadden then forced a fumble with his tackle on the next play. Later, he came off Ike Hilliard to stop a tight end on an underneath drag route for no yards after a 3-yard catch.

As for Taylor, he appeared to have deep zone coverage on the wheel route Mark Clayton ran down the right sideline. Taylor broke for the short receiver, but Clayton dropped the sure touchdown. Taylor has the athletic ability to do what McFadden did Sunday, but he may never have those canny instincts on the run. Those instincts are what I like about the Revis kid from Pitt. You've got to have one on each side.

Anthony Smith made a couple of big tackles on special teams. He lit up the Tampa punt return man early in the third quarter and made the tackle after the Steelers' second touchdown. He was also within six inches of the punt-return man who made a fair catch. The Bucs averaged 18 yards per kickoff return and 2.3 per punt return. It was easily the Steelers' best kick coverage of the season and Smith was a big reason. Perhaps he can make similar strides at free safety.

Today's best of the message boards

1TinkingShawn: We haven't had a swing OG/OT since Strelsczyk and I can't spell his name any more.

Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola is putting together an all-time 53-man roster and includes Justin Strzelczyk because of his ability to play four positions at any time off the bench. I think Willie Colon can be that man some day.

McClure48: First, Cowher wastes another T.O. challenging the spot of the ball on the punt. Second, we almost fumble a snap on 1st down. Third, we can't run the ball on 2nd down (not to mention all game). Fourth, Ben almost throws a pick on 3rd down. And finally, Gardocki has another [lousy] punt. Our season in a nutshell.

How about this one: The Steelers gain 14 on third-and-15 and hurry to the line (TB 36) to go for it on fourth-and-1 -- a no-huddle play on fourth down, yippee! But Dan Kreider runs on the field as the 12th man and they call timeout. They come out of the timeout and they're still going for it. Yippee! And then Kendall Simmons jumped for a five-yard penalty. And then, Gardocki hit another [lousy] punt.

McClure48: Aaron Smith. He was a [stin]king animal today. He often goes overlooked, but it seems like every game the man is dominating, and he always plays hard. I need to buy his jersey.

Get me one too.

Frozensteel: Leak has thrown 13 int's this season and his line has given up 22 sacks. I think Leak is going to be under pressure a lot and if he turns it over a couple times Florida is done.

Don't get caught up in the assumption the SEC didn't have defenses like Ohio State's. Florida has a better number at the line of scrimmage (offense and defense yards per carry +0.6) than Ohio State and has played a more difficult schedule, as computed by Jeff Sagarin. Ohio State is also a great home team and people are forgetting that when arguing how easily they handled Michigan. Also, I believe OSU's best defensive lineman, Quinn Pitcock, is just a guy, as the scouts say, and there's nothing game-plan-scary about the OSU DEs and LBs. The young guy in the middle's good, but I don't foresee all of the pressure you do. They blitz a bit in the SEC, too. Ohio State's offense optimizes precision and speed, but that's Florida football. This will be nothing new for the Gators.

SteelerDawg74: Well having seen [Florida] play in person, I will say that they have a ton of speed on the perimeter and have outstanding backers and safeties. I think they will be more than ready to take on OSU.

Finally, some love for the Gators. You and I both forgot to mention that incredible freshman tailback who's "had to play" lately because of an injury to their starter. Florida has speed, a secondary to match up with those OSU receivers, a GREAT running back, B-plus receivers, a good senior quarterback, a GREAT coach and an underdog's fast-and-loose mentality. I like Florida in this game.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 1, NOON

Mining the locker room for news nuggets became a bit more difficult this week. I mean, does anyone – besides a second-string TV reporter – want to ask Marvel Smith about his matchup with Simeon Rice? Is Simeon Rice even playing? Not that I care. But I did find myself amidst a gaggle of reporters asking a crutches-leaning Verron Haynes what's wrong with the team this year and if he wished he could help. I backed away. Sean Morey, my old friend, approached and asked about my book, "Men of Steel." He asked if that's the book a player should have, "because a player ought to know a little something about the history of the team he's playing on," Morey said with a smile. I smiled, too, because that's the pitch I wanted to take to Dan Rooney. Another writer made that pitch with his new book. I know because I saw it. Someone pulled that pitch out of the garbage can in his office. They even pondered pulling that writer's access just for yuks. They don't care much for that guy down there, so I didn't want to make the same mistake. But when Morey put it that way, it sounded so right. I told Morey that definitely was the book to buy. I offered – since he busted me for making a radio wisecrack about his receiving skills – to give him a copy at no cost, but he would hear none of it. "I want to do my part to stimulate the economy for authors," he said with a chuckle.

Back to the locker room. PR man Dave Lockett asked if I needed anything whilst we stood in the middle of the locker room watching TV reporters scurry to and fro as if the Super Bowl were this weekend. I told Dave I was waiting for a nugget of information to hit me in the head. He told me to go talk to the recently promoted Walter Young and ask him about perseverance. I sighed. Yeah, I told Dave, I guess that's the best I'll get today. So I asked Walter if he had a minute. I hadn't talked to him since his greatest moment with the team – the second week of the 2005 training camp. Ben Roethlisberger on one side and Alan Faneca and Brett Keisel on the other began giving Young the business. After practice the boys can get that way, and so they began calling Walter a superstar for getting interviewed, stuff like that. Walter's best quote was: "Being on the practice squad for two and a half years is definitely not a career goal." (You can read the rest of this scintillating interview in Sunday morning's notebook!) After that interview, I wondered if Ben could add to this important story. He'd stopped for a minute the previous day to chat with a couple of us about the MAC championship game. One reporter wanted insight into the game. All Ben knew about it was that Central Michigan has a big-time offensive tackle who was about to sign with his agent. I interjected that, yes, I know about Joe Staley and that my TiVo is set for the game because of him. The other reporter looked at me as if I'd finally gone over the edge. Ben didn't care. He just said his agent believes Staley will be drafted in the first round. I watched a few plays last night around "The Office" and the predictable Bengals win over the Ravens. But I think Ben's right. The kid looks strong, agile, even nimble, but I didn't watch enough. I'll blow through that tape this afternoon.

Ben is approachable beyond his Wednesday morning "gang bang" with all reporters, but he often won't answer work-related questions. I thought he might after my talk with the 6-foot-4 Walter Young. He's a receiver, so I tried to spark a useable comment from Ben by asking him if he likes tall receivers. He popped his head up from his blackberry and said, "You mean like Cedrick and Hines?" And then he put his head back down and kept walking. I wondered if he was blogging. And then I wondered why he thought his blog was more important than mine. And then I tried to figure out whether his comment was a criticism or whether he was intentionally being obtuse. I couldn't figure it out and moved on.

Speaking of the draft, I was honored that Tribune-Review columnist Mike Prisuta used the three names I'd mentioned to him during our radio show – Alan Branch, Dwayne Jarrett and Darrelle Revis – in his column the other day about potential Steelers first-round picks. Prisuta has seen all three play, of course, so that wasn't the revelation. He was just surprised, or maybe jolted, by the reality that those three could be available when the Steelers pick around 10-14 or so. So he asked if I'd mind and I told him no. Others argued with him the next day that taking a defensive lineman was silly, but I disagree. Drafting this low is no time to worry about needs and weaknesses. It's a time to think big, and who's bigger than Alan Branch? Seriously, draft the board; mine for superstars, future captains. This is no time to worry whether there's an opening for some monster who could anchor the defensive line for the next 10 years. Likewise, cornerback and offensive tackle, along with running back and wide receiver, are too important positions to quibble whether there's a temporary opening or not. Draft the studs and let the chips fall where they may.

I had Answer Man on the ropes the other day. Why is Russ Grimm's name still used as a contender to replace Bill Cowher? I'm actually rooting for Russ for personal reasons, but I don't understand why he's considered a legitimate contender with Ken Whisenhunt. Answer Man swears it's true, but I surmise that the Steelers are insisting they have two contenders so that one doesn't hold them up for more money. The conversation shifted to this question: Which one replaces Cowher if Cowher were to quit today? Neither, he said. Dick LeBeau would be the interim. AM then asked me this: What if one of the two contenders was named interim and the other was hired before the next season? It would become an embarrassing situation for the interim, thus his reasoning for using LeBeau. Then the conversation drifted to Dermontti Dawson's Hall of Fame chances and Answer Man got hot. He can't believe the lack of support Dawson's getting. He gave me two quotes. The first was from Tunch Ilkin, who called Mike Webster and Dwight Stephenson the greatest centers of all time. "And if you mix the two of them, you get Dermontti Dawson " Ilkin said. Also, Dick LeBeau was asked what he thought of Dawson and LeBeau called him the greatest center he'd ever seen. You will see these quotes further down the road if Dawson's ship doesn't pick up steam.

By the way, I did make that pitch to Dan Rooney. The owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers walked into an office where I was visiting. He told me he liked my book. I told him what Sean Morey said, and told Rooney that Morey's right, that all the players should have this book. Rooney smiled graciously and left. It was a friendly way of filing a proposal.

Today's best from the message boards

BlitzburghD: So after all of that [report on Cowher and NC State], what are your thoughts, Jim? How do you expect this to play out? What of the PFT/Collier spin on his demise?

Just when you think Pro Football Talk provides quality info and insight, along comes a turd like yesterday's column. Mike DeFlorio writes that since Gene Collier is ripping Cowher and calling for his removal, and that the Pittsburgh media is always soft on the Steelers, ergo, Collier got the story from Rooney. I thought it ridiculous. First of all, the great Gene Collier doesn't need a source for his columns. He's a columnist in the purest old-school sense of the word: more writer than reporter. And the Pittsburgh media, in spite of the stereotypes (and just awful, awful TV reporting) has been critical when it needs to be critical. Hell, Joe Starkey called the season over and ripped them a new one after the third game. My take? Again, it was about money in August, so why would the Steelers give him the money he wants now? N.C. State is not a factor. Never was. My feeling – and I'm the last one to be pulled to the dark side – is that Cowher and the Steelers will re-start negotiations after the season. He will see he can make big money elsewhere; they will not want to pay big money for a coach. The sides will part quickly. Ken Whisenhunt will be the coach next year.

txBlitz: Brian Leonard is an interesting guy if we trade up from round 3 into the bottom of round 2 to get him. I really like the idea of getting David Harris in round 2. I also saw on NFL Network that Adalius Thomas and the Ravens are no longer talking about an extension. I think the Steelers should swoop in and up the ante with some serious coin. The 3 FA's I like are Bryan Thomas, Graham, and Eric Steinbach. Hopefully either Steinbach or Kendall Simmons could slide to center, if the coaches don't like Chukky.

I like Brian Leonard, and you have his spot in the draft about right. He's not a true lead blocker, he's not a true tailback, and he's not a true H-back. But he can do all three. That makes him a good player, not a must have. He's Brad Muster. As for Harris, I'm a fan, too, and if the first round weren't so weak this year I'd agree he's a second-rounder. But he could go earlier than he should. I also worry about his instincts and his proclivity to add weight, but he's sudden, explosive, strong, all those things we loved in Kendrell Bell. As for free agency, don't get too excited. Everyone has extra money this year and there are few players. Someone like Eric Steinbach, who's more left tackle-guard than center-guard, would cost way too much. So will Adalius Thomas.


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