Happy Thanksgiving week! New and old additions, deletions and re-acquisitions, injuries, harsh critiques and towel desecration are all part of the mix this week.
Before beginning let me take a page out of the Sesame Street playbook and focus on this week's special word.
1. likely to change, due to caprice, irresolution or instability; casually changeable.
2. not constant or loyal in affections.
I really like the "...instability; casually changeable" part. Okay, let's move on.
It would be hard to imagine losing to the Ravens in any manner that would not result in consternation among Steeler Nation, but to let what looked to most to be a very winnable contest get away is just an engraved invitation to hair pulling, hand wringing and most of all finger pointing. Though it was a three point loss where the defense played brilliantly and one play could have made the difference between victory and defeat, there was no lack of imagination and passion concerning any number of goats, real or fantasized that were proposed to be thrown under the proverbial bus over this one.
As Neal Coolong opined, everyone named Mike was a pretty good suspect for criticism. Rookie tackle Mike Adams continued his first year struggles with handling a pass rush. Wide receiver Mike Wallace had a first quarter turnover deep in Steelers territory. Fortunately the defense managed to limit the resulting damage to just three points. But arguably the most severe Mike related critique was reserved for Steeler head coach Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin was skewered for everything from lousy clock management to not being particularly creative with his Tomlinisms lately. But by far the harshest commentary was his handling of quarterback Byron Leftwich and his (failure?) to not pull him from the game in favor of Charlie Batch; particularly when it appeared clear, at least to those who witnessed the game on television that Leftwich was in obvious discomfort. Many of his critics, myself included, drew parallels to the Monday Night game a year ago against the 49ers when Ben Roethlisberger remained in the game though he was clearly struggling with an injury and his performance was of no competitive benefit to the club. And of course the Tomlin haters found courage in the situation to show themselves in the light, and to attempt to make the absurd case that the situation demonstrated that he was deeply flawed as a coach, if not totally incompetent. However, Tomlin was not without his defenders in the Mediaverse. As was pointed out last week in this space, Tomlin is one of, if not the most highly respected coach among players in the league. Alan Robinson of the Tribune-Review did a piece pointing out Tomlin's ability to shape the team mentally as well as creating an atmosphere of solidarity and responsibility that did not pass unnoticed by the many who were visiting this past weekend to celebrate the Steelers 80th Anniversary weekend. And Tomlin himself put up a healthy defense of his actions at his own weekly news conference.
This is not to say that all of the blame was heaped upon the Mikes. I believe it is accurate to note that for many in Steeler Nation that the Ravens game will mark the precise point that the honeymoon with Haley came to an end. For the critics much of the focus was on a game plan that seemed to put more dependency on Leftwich making plays with his arms as opposed to a greater emphasis on the running game which had been very effective in recent weeks, coupled with a Ravens defense that struggled against the run this season. But what drove many over the edge was the play call for third and two when the Steelers had the ball on the Ravens four yard line in the third quarter. Though Pittsburgh had been running the ball effectively to that point, Haley opted for a pass play that would fail. But criticism of Haley does not constitute the end of the story either.
Room was also made underneath a now very crowded bus undercarriage for quarterback Byron Leftwich. Byron was evaluated by some as being selfish for continuing to trying to play though his injuries had degraded his skills. Then, of course, there were those who with 20/15 hindsight declared 'What skills?' According to this assessment Byron is a no talent bum who had no business being on the roster in the first place, and Steelers management had much to answer for with this travesty. This is interesting. I've always wondered how the process of purging someone worked in the old Soviet Union and China.
Now with Lefty discredited and relegated to a nonentity for the time being at least (I refer you back to this week's word), the new 'It' person is now Charlie Batch. To a certain extent this sort of fell to Charlie by default, but there appeared that there was a brief, failed attempt to rekindle our old romance with Dennis Dixon, but Dixon had the good sense to not reinsert himself in this mess. From a career perspective this certainly makes sense. Flacco is in a contract year and that situation might provide Dixon with the best opportunity to actually get a chance to play. Meanwhile back in Pittsburgh the Batch lovers are in (temporary) ascendancy. Assertions that would have been certain to draw fire from the diehard Batch haters are not being challenged for the time being. This week you get the impression that Batch isn't 'old' as much as he's 'seasoned'. Obviously, experienced observers know where this is heading. Though there may be some weak minded souls who have come over to an appreciation of Charlie via the Jedi mind tricks or some such that appear inherent in mass social situations, the Batch haters are more likely just laying low awaiting their moment, which will come if the Steelers either lose or perform poorly against the Browns. At that point, to borrow PaVa's potent imagery, the roaches will come out. And you know what's coming next, right? They'll be talking about shipping Charlie to the same glue factory they'll be sending LeBeau the next time the defense gives up 21 or more points. The Hoyer movement begins, or maybe even Ben Jr., even though he has obvious height, vision, arm strength and mobility issues at the moment. OMG. How pathetic. Please Charlie. For all our sakes.
With all the recriminations flying around this week you would be forgiven if it slipped your mind that the biggest issue facing this team at the moment is injuries. And in spite of it all there actually is some encouraging news on this front, but more about that later. Certain type of injuries seem to hit the Steelers in bunches. Remember when there were a lot of hamstring and knee injuries. Now the injury de jour are to the ribs; first Ben, then Byron and Jerricho. These along with Antonio Brown's high ankle sprain have created a depth crisis at the positions of quarterback and wide receiver sufficient to force the organization to go outside and sign a couple of players to help bridge the gap until some of the wounded are capable of returning. This constituted the big stories for this holiday week.
The big news story this week is the return of the veteran wide receiver to Pittsburgh. Relative newcomers to Steeler Nation may be unaware that for the first five years of the last decade Burress was the Steelers number one receiver. He left Pittsburgh for business rather than performance reasons and went on to play a key role in the championship run of the New York Giants in 2007. Now Burress has had a number of personal issues that have cost him in a number of ways, but his talent and performance on the field has not been an issue. His size creates instant match up problems for a defense, and it is worth noting that Steelers veterans who were present when Plaxico was on the team point out that no one on the team at the time wanted to see Plax go. While the basis for this move is to plug a hole in an emergency, it is quite possible that this could result in a very good, even great receiver corps getting even better. If Plax can realize much of his previous abilities as a 3rd or 4th receiver in conjunction with Wallace, Brown, Miller and Sanders it will give nightmares to defensive coordinators. The Steelers also added quarterback Brian Hoyer, formerly of the New England Pattriots and before that, like Burress, Michigan State University. But as I intimated above it is my fervent hope that he fades into the background, meaning that other people; Charlie for the time being and then Ben, are healthy and getting the job done.
Antonio, Byron, Evander, Jerricho and Marcus
Leftwich, Cotchery and Gilbert are definitely out this weekend, with Brown and Hood being likely scratches as well, though the latter two could return soon. On the other hand Isaac Redman, Will Allen and Stevenson Sylvester will all be available against Cleveland. But there is even better news on the injury front.
Ben, David and Troy
The good news with Ben is that he has ditched the sling and is moving his arm without any obvious pain, and there is conversation of him being available for the Week 13 game against the Ravens in Baltimore. We'll see about that, but it certainly suggests that we'll be seeing Ben back sooner rather than later. Rookie David DeCastro returned to the practice field for the first time since being injured in a preseason game in Buffalo in August. Troy Polamalu returned to practice for the first time since re-injuring his calf in the game against Eagles on Friday.
It appeared earlier in the week that procuring the services of Burress and Hoyer would come at the price of losing fan favorite Baron Batch. Batch and linebacker Marshall McFadden were both released to make room on the roster for the newcomers. At the time it was believed that Batch would not be eligible to be placed on the practice squad and therefore he was likely gone. It turns out that the information was inaccurate. Both players cleared waivers earlier in the week and have been signed to the practice squad.
Before his injury in the Kansas City game a controversy was brewing over Ben's desire to be present at the birth of his first child. Well, what if this child had the bad taste to make his entrance when the Baltimore Ravens were in town? Thus began the discussion over the ethics of choosing fatherhood over team loyalty or issues to that effect. Ben's injury made the whole matter moot of course. And now the really good news is that the baby is now here. And the timing was such that even if Ben had not been injured the whole thing would be a non issue.
Running back by committee
A survey has been conducted among Steelers fans to determine their preferences concerning the running back by committee situation. Earlier in the year fan sentiment preferred Isaac Redman. Currently, Jonathan Dwyer is the frontrunner, followed by the committee, Mendenhall and Redman.
Ray Rice and the Terrible Towel
Somewhat muted by all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over the results of Sunday's game was that Ray Rice was using a Terrible Towel in a manner that some may interpret as a desecration. And you know how that turns out for teams unwise enough to go in that direction. Rice claims no disrespect. We'll see.
The clumsy handling of player safety issues and the uneven discipline of players by the league continues. Reed was fined and suspended for a head to head hit he put on Manny Sanders during Sunday's game. Upon appeal, the league reversed the one game suspension though the fine remained in place. The credibility of the Goodell regime continues to suffer, at least in the minds of Steeler Nation. Some in the media were also critical of Ryan Clark and Antonio Brown fraternizing with Lewis during and after Sunday's game. Non issue.
Referring back to this week's word once again to end this week's check down. Maligned by many in Steeler Nation in September, cornerback Keenan Lewis was named the Steelers Digest player of the week for his effort against the Ravens.