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Tomlin Report - Bye Week Edition

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The Steelers once again sit at the top of the AFC North after a 24-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Pittsburgh will head into its bye at the perfect time, as the team will hope to rest up injured starters like LaMarr Woodley for the final stretch of the season.

2011 Week 11
7-3; First place, AFC North

Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger threw for 245 yards and Rashard Mendenhall scored two touchdowns as the Steelers knocked off the Bengals in Cincinnati 24-17. William Gay helped seal the victory by tipping a pass to Lawrence Timmons for an interception and then picking off one of his own.

A Look Around the AFC North
Baltimore (6-3) is playing out the NFL’s version of Groundhog Day. For the second time this season, the Ravens went out and laid an egg against a lesser opponent one week after a big division win over Pittsburgh. Seattle handed Baltimore a 22-17 loss to drop the team out of first place in the AFC North.

While it would be easy to pin the blame on David Reed, who fumbled away two returns, there’s still some issues to deal with. First is that Joe Flacco is still hanging around the 55% completion mark, well below the NFL average. He looked sharper against Pittsburgh, but continued his early season struggles last week. Second is that the defense failed to record a turnover against an underwhelming Seattle offense led by Tarvaris Jackson. Third, once again, Ray Rice disappeared from the game plan. Flacco threw 52 passes while Rice receiver five carries. For this offense to shine, it has to flow through Rice first and Flacco second.

Baltimore will head home this week to host the Cincinnati Bengals.

Cincinnati (6-3) lost more than the game when they traveled to Pittsburgh on Sunday; they lost the services of stud CB Leon Hall, who will miss the remainder of the season. There’s no time to rest, though, as they’ll travel to Baltimore this week and will be back against Pittsburgh two weeks after that.

Cleveland (3-6) lost its third-straight game this past weekend. While dropping back-to-backs against San Francisco and Houston is understandable, the most recent loss to St. Louis was not. Colt McCoy completed nearly 75% of his passes and didn’t turn the ball over, but the Browns failed to score a touchdown in a 13-12 loss. Despite their anemic offense, the Browns were in position to kick a 22-yard game winning field goal only to see the holding team botch the attempt.

Cleveland will host another cellar-dwellar in Jacksonville, but will do so without the services of RB Peyton Hillis, who has already been ruled out of this week’s game.

Pittsburgh has two important injuries to look out for over the bye.

QB Ben Roethlisbergerhas a broken thumb on his right hand, which means that there is a chance that he could be on the sidelines against Kansas City. However, he’s adamant that he will play in the contest. One positive: he broke the same thumb before in 2005 and didn’t miss any time.

LB LaMarr Woodleyhas missed the last two games with a hamstring injury and will be taking a “wait and see” approach to the Kansas City game.

The secondary, which was a major concern coming into the season, seems to have sorted itself out and is currently Pittsburgh’s best unit. Ike Taylor received a contract extension in the offseason and promptly became one of the league’s best corners, shadowing the opponent’s top receiver and taking him out of the game. William Gay returned to the starting lineup and is playing the best ball of his career. While Troy Polamalu has been a little inconsistent, he still is capable of taking over games (like he did against Tennessee) and is complemented well by the physical play of Ryan Clark. Even Keenan Lewis, who looked like a lost cause in the offseason, has come on as the third corner up.

Mike Wallace transformed from the league’s best deep threat to one of its best all-around receivers. Wallace, who is on pace for over 1500 yards, has learned to use his speed (and the cushion defenders give him) to set up opportunities for himself underneath. Of course, he’s still torching defenses on a regular basis as his 17.4 yards per catch average can attest.

Antonio Brown has been no slouch either, and he kicked things up a notch with 26 receptions and 364 yards in his last four games. He’s second on the team in receptions and yards, which is fitting, as he has leap-frogged Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders to become the true #2 receiver behind Mike Wallace. Remember, he’s only in his second season, too.

For the second straight season, Pittsburgh is receiving contributions from its young players. Brown may lead the way for second-year players, but the team has also had help from linebackers Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester and, of course, reigning Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. As far as a rookies go, second-rounder Marcus Gilbert has solidified the right tackle spot in his first season as a pro. First-rounder Cameron Heyward is heavily involved in the defensive line rotation while linebacker Chris Carter and cornerback Cortez Allen are chipping in on the back end.

The running game is floundering yet again with a middling 109.8 yards per game. The unit has only put up two great games this season: the Redman/Dwyer 156 yard special against Tennessee and the answering bell by Rashard Mendenhall that saw him pile up 146 the next week vs. Jacksonville. Other than that, it’s been a low-quality attack that has Mendenhall on pace to finish below 1,000 yards on the season, which is unacceptable for a first-round running back in the prime of his career. The constantly-shuffled offensive line (which has settled the last three weeks) has an equal share of the blame with Mendenhall (who dances in the backfield far too often) for a mediocre ground game.

Every week, coach Tomlin kicks off his press conference with new additions to the injury report as the injury bug continues to ravage the Steelers. Each section of the team, outside of quarterback and tight end, has lost games to injury this season. The two most ravaged units include the offensive line and the linebacking corps. The offensive line started seven different lineups in the first seven weeks of the season, and has been starting a rookie in place of the injured Willie Colon since week two. The linebacking group has lost James Harrison, James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, and Jason Worilds to various injuries, forcing Lawrence Timmons to kick outside more often than he should. The team has also been hit on the defensive line (Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke) and at receiver (Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders).

Even with two interceptions against the Bengals this past weekend, Pittsburgh is tied for last place in the NFL in turnover differential (-10) with the winless Indianapolis Colts. Part of that is because of careless play early in the season by the offense, particularly in the season opener. The bigger issue is that those two interceptions doubled the team’s total on the season and brought the Steelers up to six turnovers in ten games. While the defense has been solid otherwise, its inability to take the ball away could spell trouble in tougher matchups.

Offense: Mike Wallace, WR – As I mentioned before, he’s on pace for a 1,500 yard season. While he will end up falling short of his bold 2,000 yard prediction, he has developed into one of the best receivers in the league and is easily the team’s driving force on offense.

Defense: Ike Taylor, CB – Taylor is the rare corner that follows the opponent’s best receiver regardless of where he lines up on the field, the same way that the Jets use Darrelle Revis. While Taylor isn’t playing at the level Revis is, he’s settled nicely at the head of the tier below him. If he finishes strong over the final six games, he could earn his first All-Pro nod. He certainly deserves it.

(Home games in BOLD)
Sunday, Nov. 27 at Kansas City 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday, Dec. 4 CINCINNATI 1 p.m. (CBS)
Thursday, Dec. 8 CLEVELAND 8:20 p.m. (NFL Net./KDKA)
Monday, Dec. 19 at San Francisco 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, Dec. 24 ST. LOUIS 1 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, Jan. 1 at Cleveland 1 p.m. (CBS)

According to Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh has played the 20th-hardest schedule in the league at this point in the season. The Steelers will have a great opportunity to take the AFC North in a six-game finish that ranks as the 30th-hardest the rest of the way. Only New England and San Francisco have an easier finish.

Keep an eye on the four-game slate in the middle of the list, as it present a number of strange scheduling and travel quirks. Pittsburgh will host Cincinnati at home and then will make a quick turnaround to host Cleveland just a few days later on Thursday night. That will give them ten days to prepare for the hardest game left on the schedule, the San Francisco 49ers who are 8-1. That game could have some added difficulty given that it is in San Francisco.

From there, the Steelers will have to jet back to the east to take on the St. Louis Rams at home on a very short week, given that the Christmas Holiday pushes that game to Saturday instead of Sunday and that Pittsburgh is already coming off of a Monday nighter on the west coast.

Overall, this looks like a 4-2 slate at worst. Kansas City will likely be starting Tyler Palko when the two teams meet. Cincinnati could give Pittsburgh trouble, but the Steelers could have LaMarr Woodley back by then as well. Cleveland and St. Louis have established themselves as bottom-feeders in the NFL, and are struggling to put points on the board offensively. That leaves a road trip to San Francisco to face one of the league’s best defenses. Worst case scenario, the team drops one to the 49ers and the Bengals sneak by to force an 11-5 finish by the Steelers. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team run the table and possibly lock up a top seed with a 13-3 record.

Offense: Antonio Brown, WR – Just like last season, Brown has saved his best ball for the second half. He’s making tough grabs and crossed the 100-yard mark in two of his last four contests. The one thing missing so far is touchdowns. If he can establish a presence in the red zone, Pittsburgh can start cashing in a lot more 7’s instead of 3’s.

Defense: Troy Polamalu, SS – Polamalu hasn’t necessarily been quiet – he’s second on the team with 62 tackles – but he really hasn’t exhibited the play that made him the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year last season. He has yet to intercept a pass this season, despite having numerous chances to do so. That drought won’t last forever. Sometime before the season ends, Troy will break out of his mini-funk and will make splash play after splash play.

Pittsburgh to lock up one of the top two seeds in the conference. With Houston losing Matt Schaub for the season and Baltimore/Cincinnati having two games left between each other, Pittsburgh will likely be running against New England for the valuable first-round bye and home-field advantage.

Mike Wallace currently leads Football Outsider’s receiver rankings in terms of total value. If he finishes in first at the end of the season, it will be the second straight year he has led the league according to their numbers. In terms of value per play, he had been ranked no worse than fourth each year that he’s been in the league.

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