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Tomlin Report - The Home Stretch

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The Steelers will hope that the momentum of their 35-7 win over the Bengals carries over into a home matchup against the Browns on a short week. That home contest kicks off the final stretch of the season, with Pittsburgh likely needing to win out to catch the Ravens for the AFC North crown.

2011 Week 14
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3) vs. Cleveland Browns (4-8) at
Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA
Thursday, December 8 – 8:20 PM on NFL Network (or KDKA locally)

Browns: Cleveland was ran out of its own stadium by a red-hot Baltimore Ravens team that left town with a 24-10 victory that wasn’t as close as the score may indicate. The Browns had less total yards (233) than the Ravens had on the ground alone (290 rushing yards). Baltimore’s Ray Rice shredded Cleveland for 204 of those yards with a 7.0 ypc average.

Steelers: Pittsburgh played its best game of the season in a key 35-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers special teams unit shined – blocking a field goal, scoring a touchdown on the punt return, and forcing a fumble that led to a score. Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall each scored twice for Pittsburgh’s offense.

Rashard Mendenhall scored his 27th and 28th touchdowns, moving him past Barry Foster and John Henry Johnson for fifth-place all-time in Steelers history.

Hines Ward broke the 12,000-yard threshold, the 19th player in history and the first Steeler to accomplish the feat. He joins Jerry Rice and Art Monk as the only receivers to rack up 12,000 yards receiving while also winning multiple Super Bowls.

Ben Roethlisberger completed the 2,026th pass of his Steelers career, besting Terry Bradshaw for the team-record in the category. He also broke Bradshaw’s sack-record, besting Terry’s 307 by suffering his 308th takedown against the Bengals.

A Look Around the AFC North
Baltimore (9-3) ran all over the Browns on Sunday. Ray Rice picked up 204 of the Ravens’ 290 yards on the ground to help Baltimore grind out an easy win on the road.

The Ravens still control their own fate. Winning out means that Baltimore will win the division and earn a first-round bye. They’ll likely earn a victory in the first game of the home stretch on Sunday, with a home date against the winless Indianapolis Colts.

Cincinnati (7-5) may have been exposed as a overachievers after picking up a third loss in the last four games. The simple facts: The Bengals are 6-0 against teams with losing records and 1-5 against teams with winning records. The lone win came against a Tennessee Titans team that really hasn’t been that impressive in 2011 (though they did beat the Ravens).

The Bengals are clinging to a wild card spot, but still have games against Houston (this week) and Baltimore (the final week of the season). If the young team can rise up, Cincinnati can earn a playoff trip. If they falter, they’ll be on the outside looking in.

AFC Playoff Picture as of 12/5/11
Division Leaders
New England Patriots (9-3)
Baltimore Ravens (9-3)
Houston Texans (9-3)
Denver Broncos (7-5)

Wild Cards
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3)
Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)

In the Hunt
Tennessee Titans (7-5)
Oakland Raiders (7-5)
New York Jets (7-5)

While two teams in the NFC (Packers, 49ers) have already clinched their divisions, the AFC is still relatively wide open. While the Patriots and Ravens are currently in the lead for the two-coveted first-round byes, the Texans and Steelers both have realistic shots of earning a week off come playoff time.

The AFC North is perhaps the most important divisional race at the moment, with the Steelers and Ravens neck and neck for the division crown. If Pittsburgh wins out, it will need Baltimore to drop at least one game, though, as the latter holds a head-to-head tiebreaker due to a sweep of the regular season series. Cincinnati is still clinging to a wild-card spot, and could make some noise with upcoming home dates against Houston and Baltimore.

The AFC South is essentially between the Texans and Titans at this point. Indianapolis and Jacksonville have both been eliminated from the division race. If the Texans stumble, the Titans could take advantage with a week 17 road game in Houston.

The AFC East is the closest to being sealed away, with New England already owning a full tiebreaker over the next closest team, New York. The Bills aren’t necessarily out of it, but they’re definitely on life support after five-straight losses.

The AFC West might be the race to watch down the stretch, with Denver and Oakland tied at the top of the division at 7-5. Kansas City and San Diego could realistically come from behind to take the crown, though, something that has happened before in a division that can seemingly turn on a dime.

The tone set by his special teams in the first half against the Bengals. A blocked field goal early on denied points, a forced fumble on a kickoff return denied a possession, and a return touchdown at the end denied a realistic shot of a comeback.

OG Ramon Foster suffered a left ankle sprain and did not return in Sunday’s win over the Bengals. He can be characterized as QUESTIONABLE against the Browns.

LB LaMarr Woodley tweaked his hamstring in the first quarter. It’s the same hamstring that caused him to miss the previous three games. According to Tomlin, he is “still in play” for Thursday and should be QUESTIONABLE.

LB Larry Foote (hamstring), who missed the Bengals game, is QUESTIONABLE to return against the Browns.

WR Arnaz Battle (hamstring) and LB Chris Carter (hamstring) are already OUT for Thursday’s contest.

NT Chris Hoke (neck) and RB Jonathan Dwyer (foot) both visited the team’s doctor on Monday. With the game only days away, expect both to be OUT.

QB Colt McCoy has a sprained right knee, but is not expected to miss any time. Consider him PROBABLE for Thursday.

RB Peyton Hillisstrained his hip on Sunday and his participation could be in danger thanks to a quick turn-around. He should be QUESTIONABLE for this week.

S T.J. Ward(foot sprain) is already listed as OUT against the Steelers.

Will the shortened week and an already down-trodden opponent cause the Steelers to drop their guard a bit and produce another Kansas City stinker, or will they continue to take the league by storm by blowing out the lowly Browns?

WR/RB/KR/PR Joshua Cribbs – I probably could list quarterback there, too. Cribbs really is an all-purpose threat and is often the lone threat for an offense that has struggled in 2011. While the Steelers have usually contained Cribbs pretty well when he’s lining up on offense, he has killed them in the return game. Pittsburgh will have to hope its special teams stay hot and keep Cribbs bottled up.

CB Joe Haden – Tomlin only briefly mentioned Haden in his press conference, which is fitting, as Haden has quietly (and I do mean quietly) emerged as one of the league’s better corners. He’s still only in his second year and doesn’t have an interception this season, but he has also done a strong job of shutting down the opponent’s top receiving threat in most weeks.

LB D’Qwell Jackson – If there’s a tackle to be made, this guy will make it. Jackson is second in the league in total tackles (112), but leads the league in stuffs (9). He also has three sacks on the season and is a responsible defender in pass coverage. He’s not flashy, by any means, but he’s the type of linebacker who gets the job done more often than not.

• Browns running backs coach Gary Brown played at Penn State University from 1987-1990.
• Browns linebackers coach Bill Davis was born in nearby Youngstown, Ohio. Davis was on the Steelers staff from 1992-1994.
• Browns quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple was on the Steelers staff from 2004-2006.
• Browns OL Jason Pinkston was born in Pittsburgh. He attended Baldwin High School and the University of Pittsburgh. He was drafted by the Browns in the fifth round (150th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft.
• Browns DE Jabaal Sheard was a teammate of Pinkston at the University of Pittsburgh. Sheard was drafted by the Browns in the second round (37th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft.
• Browns S Ray Ventrone was born in Pittsburgh and attended Chartiers Valley High School.
• Browns DL Scott Paxson played at Penn State University from 2002-2005. Paxson signed as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Steelers in 2006. He was on and off of the Steelers practice squad and active roster from 2006-2010.
• Browns WR Jordan Norwood played at Penn State University from 2005-2008.

“Jabaal Sheard, from [the University of Pittsburgh], is playing good, consistent ball for them. I think he leads them in sacks with 5.5. It’s not just about the sacks. The guy is consistently providing pressure and breaking down the right side of pockets, affecting throws that are made to that side of the field, when he makes the quarterback move his feet. We have to do a good job against Sheard. It’s going to be a big challenge for Marcus Gilbert, one that he better quickly establish himself with, because if he’s going to continue to be our right tackle, he’s going to continue to see Sheard, because he appears to be a mainstay for these guys.” On rookie defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who was drafted by the Browns in the second round of April’s draft.

“Josh Cribbs is a multi-purpose guy. He’s capable of hurting us in a lot of ways, wildcat quarterback and others. Those are some of the things that scare you in a short week, because you get limited opportunities to prepare for some obscure, package-related things. If they are into that, then he’s going to be a central part of it.” On receiver/return-man Joshua Cribbs, who lines up at multiple positions on offense in addition to his return duties.

“As a non-starter or a starter in waiting, he better be capable of distinguishing himself in whatever we ask him to do, whether it’s on the right side or the left side. I don’t look for strengths in that area. I identify weakness, and hopefully he’s willing to work on them. He better be versatile enough to help us in whatever ways we ask him.” When asked if backup linebacker Jason Worilds seems to more more comfortable playing on the left side of the defense (Woodley’s side) as opposed to the right (Harrison’s side).

“We have a bunch of guys with milestone-like things. We can’t get consumed with that. If we do what we are supposed to do, I am sure we are capable of realizing all of those things. We can’t lose sleep over that. I know it’s a personal thing for him. I know it’s important to him. But if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do and we are doing what we are supposed to do, it will take care of itself.” Answering whether Hines Ward reaching 1,000 catches (he’s ten shy) is a priority for the offense.

Trai Essex to be the likely started a left guard in the event that Ramon Foster doesn’t play. While Chris Kemoeatu is available, he has limited experience on the right side of the line.

If Essex doesn’t make the start, another possibility is that Doug Legursky shifts from left guard to right guard with Kemoeatu stepping in on the left.

“We cannot let Josh Cribbs do what he’s done to us time and time again in the past. We’ve been dead Indians in his cowboy movie enough.” On the return talents of Cleveland’s Joshua Cribbs. Cribbs has averaged 26.1 yards per kickoff and 11.93 yards per punt in his career against the Steelers. He also has three kickoff return touchdowns.

“If we would have played them 14 or 15 times this year, then yes. But the team we are assembling and the team they are assembling are different than some of the teams that have taken part in that history. We tend to live in the now. We are looking at what they are capable of this year compared to what we’ve done and what we’re capable of this year. We are probably not going to have a level of comfort when looking at it from that perspective.” When asked if his Steelers might “hold back” (or let up) against a team that they have been very successful against in the past.

“He is doing a nice job. He’s got a different sense of urgency than most. His hair is on fire. This guy competes when he’s in position to make plays. He competes when he is in less than ideal positions, double-teams. He’s an exciting young guy, not only because of what he’s doing on special teams, but generally, if a guy plays with that kind of urgency and that kind of production on special teams, it’s a window to what he may be capable of doing at some point on offense or defense.” Discussing rookie cornerback Curtis Brown. Brown distinguished himself on special teams against the Bengals with two big stops in the return game.

PSR writer Steve Flinn dug up this little gem during PSR’s Gameday Chat on Sunday Night (we’ll be having another chat for this week’s game Thursday night, as well):

Against Cincinnati, Rashard Mendenhall scored his 27th and 28th career rushing touchdowns, passing Barry Foster and John Henry Johnson for fifth all-time on the Steelers in that category.

That begged the question: who are the four Steelers still ahead of Mendenhall in terms of rushing touchdowns?

Numbers one and two were relatively easy guesses. Franco Harris leads all Steelers with 91 rushing touchdowns in his career. Jerome Bettis is second with 78 rushing TDs as a Steeler.

But who are numbers three and four?

Rocky Bleier? John “Frenchy” Fuqua? Dick Hoak? Willie Parker?

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Third on the list is all-purpose threat and former Offensive Player of the Year Kordell Stewart, who racked up 35 touchdowns in his Steeler career – including an eleven-touchdown performance as the team’s quarterback in the 1997 season.

Fourth? That would be Pittsburgh’s four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, who ran for 32 scores in his 14-year Hall of Fame career.

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